Research Initiation: Graduate Student Mental Health and Stress in Engineering


Abstract: Mental health is a key attribute for success in graduate programs. However, previous studies demonstrate a growing mental health crisis in graduate education, which can contribute to issues with productivity, departure, and student well-being. Engineering students are not immune to this crisis, yet are one of the least likely disciplines to seek help for mental health concerns. Despite this trend, there is a relative lack of literature available to provide evidence-based practices for addressing the causes and persistence of mental health issues for engineering graduate students. To address this need and to begin the process of advocating for systemic change, this project will explore how faculty and student attitudes about mental health intersect with the institutional features that direct action when a mental health crisis arises. Understanding these facets of mental health in academia is a first step toward changing the policies and practices that have perpetuated the mental health crisis in engineering. This project will develop evidence-based practices to improve student mental health services in graduate engineering programs. The study will also develop a new engineering education faculty member by fostering his skills and equipping him to be a contributing member of the engineering education research community. To accomplish the above goals, this study will systematically explore how faculty and student attitudes about mental health intersect with institutional features and shape programmatic trends. Specifically, the project will answer the following research questions: (1) What are the institutional and individual features that influence students? attitudes about mental health? (2) What are the institutional and individual features that influence faculty attitudes about mental health? (3) What are the different attitudes about mental health across engineering degree programs? To answer the three research questions, this work will employ a three-phase multi-method qualitative study. In Phase 1, engineering graduate students? and engineering faculty?s attitudes about mental health will be examined through the use of Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. The attitudes of each group will be examined separately and then each group will be compared to understand the ways these perceptions intersect and influence action. Leveraging the experiences of Phase 1, Phase 2 will refine existing interview protocols and develop a codebook for deductive coding. Phase 3 will utilize the results of Phases 1 and 2 to phenomenographically examine how graduate student and faculty attitudes about mental health are influenced across departmental structures and cultures. The results from each of these phases will highlight the ways participants? lived experiences influence their attitudes about and actions toward mental health and the ways institutional structures create variability in these attitudes. Findings from all phases will be used to shift institutional policies and practices that exacerbate the mental health crisis. Specifically, we will work with university counseling centers and engineering programs to develop policies and training that are aligned with emergent findings and existing best practices. Training will be conducted locally and nationally to propagate models that support engineering graduate student development. The combined efforts of this work will develop a new engineering education researcher while shifting cultural defaults to remove barriers, stigmas, and consequences that surround seeking mental health services.

Details

  • Organization: National Science Foundation (NSF)
  • Award #: EEC-2025096
  • Amount: 200,000
  • Date: Jan. 1, 2021 - Dec. 31, 2022
  • PI: Dr. David Feil-Seifer
  • Co-PI: Adam Kirn