Graduate school can be a high-stress experience, with long hours spent working in the lab, applying for grants, and writing research papers. Magnifying that pressure is a culture in biomedical research that requires intense focus and sustained drive. All that can take a toll on students’ mental health. In fact, research has found that the incidence of depression and anxiety in the graduate school population is more than six times the rate observed in the general population.
NIH Pilot Program
To help navigate this world, cope with stress, and develop the skills necessary to thrive, 17 Einstein graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, all peer mentors or club leaders, are helping to pilot a program this spring offered by the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Called Resilient Scientist Training, the NIH OITE hopes the program increases awareness of the role of wellness and resilience in a successful scientific career. Universities and research institutions nationwide were invited to apply to be a part of the program, and other medical schools participating this spring include Vanderbilt and Yale.
At Einstein it is being led by Diane Safer, Ph.D., director of Einstein’s office of career and professional development for graduate students and postdocs, and Mary Kelly, Ph.D., director of Einstein’s office of academic support and counseling. Entirely virtual this year, the free NIH-directed program began in January and runs through May with a series of monthly webinars and small-group discussions.
“Resiliency is very important, and it’s not a skill that is explicitly a part of the scientists’ training,” Dr. Safer says. “These trainees are often under a lot of pressure. But scientists need to be well to do well; they need to learn how to bounce back when something goes wrong.”
Drs. Safer and Kelly are being trained as program facilitators, with a goal of helping Einstein’s scientists develop the emotional intelligence tools needed for success in academic and research environments. The program also provides a safe place for trainees to come together to discuss issues and strategies.
The resilient scientist training program focuses on six areas:
- Introducing wellness and resilience;
- Understanding cognitive distortions, imposter fears, and stereotype threats;
- Learning about emotional intelligence and emotion in the workplace:
- Promoting self-advocacy and assertiveness for scientists;
- Developing feedback resilience; and
- Maximizing mentoring relationships.
Training for Resilience
Dr. Safer says the real power of the program is the small-group discussions that follow the webinars. “Many students share the same worries. They talk about doubting themselves, or that all-or-nothing feeling like something is a catastrophe when it’s actually something small that went wrong,” Dr. Safer says. “You can watch a webinar, but it’s not going to help you as much as hearing another trainee talk about the same issues. I’ve had trainees tell me, ‘I had no idea that others felt the same way.’ It helped them understand they weren’t alone.”
Mericka McCabe, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry and program participant, says it has been “refreshing to hear fellow scientists acknowledge the importance of mental health and wellness.” Ms. McCabe, who is a board member of Einstein Women’s Networking Group and a peer mentor, says the small-group discussions “have created a place where we can share our challenges. With the encouragement of my classmates, I've found new ways to set boundaries and new ways to take care of myself, even with the simplest acts, like setting aside one day a week to not check my email.”
Although Einstein offers a number of programs that help grad students and postdocs develop skills for success, this is the first that focuses on emotional resilience for biomedical sciences researchers. “Life in the lab can be lonely and stressful,” Dr. Kelly notes. “Rather than having a general wellness program, this targets the particular stressors experienced by scientists.”
Later this spring the NIH will conduct focus groups and interviews with Einstein’s facilitators and participants to find out whether the sessions helped trainees to become better equipped to manage stress and conflict.
NIH OITE Program Director Sharon Milgram, Ph.D., who was the keynote speaker at Einstein’s virtual Women in Science Day this year and who will return in September to speak about wellness for this year’s National Postdoc Appreciation Week, teaches students during the webinars not to be so hard on themselves. “She gives an example of the jackal and the giraffe,” Dr. Safer says. “You can either talk to yourself like an animal that tears things down, the jackal, or like one with a larger heart, the giraffe.”
Ms. McCabe says the program has prompted her to talk to friends, family, and lab mates about the challenges she’s facing. “These conversations are crucial in all aspects of life, but especially grad school,” she says, “where people often suffer through the difficulties of failed experiments, stressful presentations, and a lot of uncertainty.”
Building Blocks of Support
While this recent program has been a welcome addition to the offerings for trainees, Einstein’s office of career and professional development for graduate students and postdocs has been providing a range of dedicated support for several years.
“Rather than having a general wellness program, this targets the particular stressors experienced by scientists.
Mary Kelly, Ph.D.
Led by Dr. Safer, the office teaches postdocs and graduate students about professional skills, including how to market themselves and navigate the job application process; it presents extensive networking opportunities and access to online career development resources; and it offers guidance on a variety of job opportunities—both inside and outside academia. Recent seminars included presentations from those in the biopharmaceutical industry, government biodefense, and academic research administration.
In addition, mental health support is a critical part of the offerings for all students and fellows at Einstein. The office of academic support and counseling, led by Dr. Kelly, has long provided help for graduate students and has more recently begun to work with postdocs. It is the home base of the peer mentor programs and provides a safe place for Einstein trainees to find the resources they need to flourish and succeed.
The aim of the new Resilient Scientist Training program is to help Ph.D. students and postdocs build a strong foundation to protect themselves against common stressors and strains as they progress in their careers—and to encourage that kind of environment across campus.
This NIH-sponsored program is something that Einstein can expand upon, Dr. Safer says. “The plan is to offer it again to more graduate students and postdocs on a regular basis. The great thing is that they will then take these skills with them wherever they may go. It’s all about increasing scientists’ resilience and developing the skills needed for success.”
Posted on: Wednesday, April 28, 2021