I am female and an early-career PI (principal investigator) in a discipline that tends to attract women, and people with high levels of anxiety (this is documented). In my first years as a graduate supervisor, I have selected a balanced group of men and women from a variety of backgrounds based on their academic potential and research interests.
I feel strongly about the PI’s role in reducing the stress and pressure of graduate school. Each student is fully supported financially and has a funded research project they declared and interest in and agreed to, and are encouraged to develop their own line of research according to their interests for subsequent projects. Some have a co-supervisor and all have a committee of PIs to support the training plan and help make important decisions. I encourage students to develop workload and project management skills, and am always available if they need help or to discuss, but I do not pressure them. I make it clear that I highly prioritize mental health and encourage them to only work 35 hours/week, take vacations when they like, to exercise/socialize, and to avail themselves of university services (of which we have many).
The men in my lab are doing very well. They occasionally need reassurance, emotional support, or an adjustment in tasks/approach, and then they are able to get on with their research and are well on their way to developing into independent, capable, and kind researchers.
Almost all of the women have turned out to have pre-existing mental health issues (anxiety, depression, and in one case PTSD). These students become overwhelmed, emotionally volatile, keep changing their ideas about what they want to work on (even though their funding is connected to lab projects), sometimes become jealous of other students' progress, and in some cases become entirely non-functional at intervals. I scramble to adjust their workload for example hiring undergrads to help with their data collection or doing it myself, investing hours in counseling and reassuring them, problem-solving with their committee/co-supervisors, and losing sleep when I know they are feeling miserable. I don’t see what more I can do actually change about their graduate experience while having them progress and be successful in their degrees, nor do they have concrete, stable ideas about how I could help.
So far, I am surprised that this seems to be a highly gendered issue. I feel ill-equipped to provide the needed level of psychological and emotional support for this kind of high-anxiety student – but nor can I run a lab and attend to my other duties if half of my students are taking 90% of my time and are making limited progress.
As woman and a person with a strong interest in equity, diversity and inclusiveness I am horrified at the idea, but I find myself considering only accepting to supervise non-female students until the lab is established and there is less startup pressure.
How can I avoid this terrible solution and live up to my ideals, while not going nuts myself?
Clarifications: I do not attempt to provide counseling(!), but rather refer students to mental health services for specific personal issues, which they can access free of charge. Some students choose to make me aware of their struggles, usually when they are in distress, in which case I try to work with them to rearrange practical aspects of their situation, and consult with senior colleagues if necessary. Students in my lab already have a lighter load than others in similar situations as they are fully funded without being required to serve as teaching assistants - they only have to do light coursework and progress on their own research projects. I am not trying to justify this practice, nor to assert that it is a universal problem (which is why I think it is not useful to defend my observations with specific statistics, though I have referenced several papers), but rather to find better solutions in my specific situation after having tried to make various changes and accommodations. I am not that worried about discrimination complaints and legal issues - selecting one person over another with the amorphous selection criteria we use and respondents have suggested can always be justified, which is why sexism and discrimination is such a difficult thing to remove from our system (but I am going to keep this anonymized).
Comment on my own mental health: I have some excellent mentors myself and am well supported by my colleagues, but I am admittedly in a difficult career stage. There is maybe a personality factor in that I have difficulty not being upset myself when people I am responsible for are in distress and I can do nothing for them, and they continue to disregard guidance and make choices that make things worse for themselves and others. In my opinion, some have no business starting a graduate degree with the unresolved problems they have. I would have difficultly finding the time and energy to support the drain that comes with people with pre-existing anxiety and depression, though will need to accept students occasionally to keep up projects and funding commitments. So perhaps I have no business selecting people for whom there is a higher risk of this problem, and whom I would not be able to optimally support at this time.
My values are to support EDI and promote women and underrepresented groups in science and to treat people as individuals. My practical considerations are that I am having trouble during a critical early career stage supporting an unexpectedly high proportion of students with pre-existing anxiety and depression, and don't want to take on any more of them until I can be sure I can provide them with the needed level of support and that they will not cause problems for themselves or other people. I should note that other groups may have a higher prevalence of other sorts of problematic issues; this is just the one that is using most of my time and energy.
I think the best combination of answers is:
- recruit from amongst people I have had a chance to work with or a trusted colleague has (not just a letter of ref, which are often not very revealing)
- screen as selectively as possible for evidence of resilience, stress management, and coping skills with thoughtful interview questions
- make very sure students understand that it's going to be psychologically challenging
- be kind but reasonably supportive, but clear and firm about my role as a supervisor and what are non-negotiable expectations regarding professionalism
- accept that I can't fix people and I can only be responsible for their successful professional development if they want and let me
- ride it out, as the lab collectively gains more maturity the senior students and our lab culture will be able to help stabilize and support new people
Thanks everyone for your opinions and for remaining civil. I like to think that academic training equips people to examine controversial points and consider alternative viewpoints. For the most part this seems true here.