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Perceived stress among graduate students: roles, responsibilities, & social support.

Abstract

This qualitative study examined perceived stress among graduate students with regard to roles, responsibilities, and social support. Twelve graduate students responded to interview questions regarding personal and academic responsibilities, stress levels, and coping strategies. Participants experienced role conflict between academic and personal responsibilities. Difficulty balancing these responsibilities resulted in increased stress levels. Changes in graduate students' levels of social support upon entering graduate school prevented them fromusing it as a means to cope with stress. Inadequately coping with stress caused symptoms of burnout, which lead some participants to consider leaving their programs before completing their degrees.

Stress results from conflicting roles in an individual's life that produce competing demands over time (Hudd, Dumlao, Erdmann-Sager, Murray, Phan, Soukas, & Yokozuka, 2000). Conflict emerges when responsibilities and expectations of one role conflict with the expectations of another role (Dyk, 1987; Ross, et al., 1999; Sciacca & Melby, 1992). Graduate students often experience inter-role conflict between their personal and academic roles. These conflicts often occur in the physically and psychologically demanding environment of higher education (Neumann, Finaly-Neumann, & Reichel, 1990), causing stress among students (Abouserie, 1994; Deckro, Ballinger, Hoyt, & Wilcher, 2002; Geraghty, 1997; Goldman & Wong, 1997; Kanters, Bristol, & Attarian, 2002; Ross, Niebling, & Heckert, 1999; Sciacca & Melby, 1992).

If graduate students cannot cope with stress that results from inter-role conflict, then physical and psychological health problems can occur. Physical health problems associated with stress include headaches (Deckro, Ballinger, Hoyt, & Wilcher, 2002; Duenwald, 2002); upset stomach (Duenwald, 2002); sleep disturbances (Deckro, Ballinger, Hoyt, & Wilcher, 2002; Duenwald, 2002; Hudd, Dumlao, Erdmann-Sager, Murray, Phan, Soukas, et al, 2000). Psychological health problems include anxiety attacks (Duenwald, 2002), depression (Dixon & Reid, 2000; Frazier & Schauben, 1994; Geraghty, 1997), and burnout (Neumann, FinalyNeumann, & Reichel, 1990; Vaez & Laflamme, 2003; Zalenski, Levey-Thors, & Schiaffino, 1998; Bruce, Conaglen, & Conaglen, 2005; Jenkins & Elliot, 2004; Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001; Peiro, Gonzalez-Roma, Tordera & Manas, 2001). Thus, graduate students must find ways to cope with stress to prevent these health problems from occurring.

Social support can create a buffer between stress and graduate students (Bolt, 2004, Jenkins & Elliot, 2004; Jung, 1997; Lawson & Fuehrer, 1989; Mallinckrodt & Leong, 1992), particularly for students already under intense stress (Jenkins & Elliot, 2004; Mallinckrodt & Leong, 1992). The stress-buffering theory helps explain how social support helps people cope with adverse life events, thereby decreasing stress levels. Decreased stress that accompanies increased social support reduces the likelihood that students will develop stress-induced physical (Bolt, 2004) and psychological illnesses (Kanters, Bristol, & Attarian, 2002; Lawson & Fuehrer, 1989; Clara, Cox, Enns, Murray, & Torgrude, 2003; Hodges, 2002)

Burnout, a common psychological health problem associated with stress, involves "exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration (Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, http://www.m-w.com/ dictionary/bumout, February 2007)". Burnout poses a particular challenge in higher education because research indicates burnout can lead to attrition among graduate students (Christie, Munro, & Fisher, 2004; Golde, 1998; Herzig, 2004; Reed & Giacobbi, 2004; Spicuzza & De Voe, 1982; Pines & Keinan, 2005). Social support can help reduce stress, thereby alleviating burnout (Bolt, 2004, Jenkins & Elliot, 2004; Jung, 1997; Lawson & Fuehrer, 1989; Mallinckrodt & Leong, 1992), underscoring the importance of social support in the lives of graduate students.

A Preliminary Protocol

Higher education personnel can benefit from learning more about graduate students' perception of stress and their ability to cope with stressful situations (Abouserie, 1994; Deckro, Ballinger, Hoyt, & Wilcher, 2002; Geraghty, 1997; Goldman & Wong,1997; Kanters, Bristol, & Attarian, 2002; Neumann, Finaly-Neumann, & Reiche1,1990; Ross, Niebling, & Heckert,1999; Sciacca & Melby, 1992). This preliminary protocol involved two components: a discussion of situations and expectations that cause graduate students to experience stress, and strategies students use to re-establish equilibrium as a socialized participant in the academic culture. The protocol used a set of interview questions to probe the extent to which the graduate school experience influences levels of social support, thereby affecting graduate student stress levels.

To test the protocol, 12 graduate students participated in semistructured, in-depth, personal interviews. Interviewees included two male and 10 female graduate students with a mean age of 27 from diverse ethnic backgrounds (i.e., Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, Canadian, Jamaican) and with a mean age of 27. The group included three master's students and nine doctoral students enrolled at a large, Southeastern university during summer session 2005. Their fields of study included health education, molecular genetics, English, and business administration.

The interview question set was drafted based on a review of literature. After conducting the trial interviews, the authors refined the items to improve question clarity and smooth the transition between questions. The refinement process increased interviewee's understanding of the core concepts within each question, which led to more thorough responses, thereby providing adequate data for analysis. The authors conducted the interviews, which lasted 30 to 45 minutes each.

Interviews were transcribed and analyzed using a microanalytic approach in which transcripts were reviewed and coded line-byline to generate categories, and to identify relationships between categories of themes. The major themes were organized, then used to develop ten domains: academic responsibilities, personal responsibilities, balancing responsibilities, perceptions of stress, types of stressors, negative consequences of stress, coping with stress, perceptions of quality of social support, aspects of effective social support, and influences of graduate school on social life.

Principal Domains

Academic Responsibilities

Several interviewees mentioned academic responsibilities as their main priority. One interviewee said, "I would say it takes up a good majority of my time." Academic responsibilities included holding research and teaching assistantships as well as conducting and publishing research. Regarding teaching assistantships, one interviewee said
 My responsibilities include conducting two to four classes a
 week depending on ... how many classes I'm teaching, and
 creating all the assignments, creating the lesson plans, grading,
 holding office hours with my students.


Academic responsibilities also included courses, homework, interaction with professors, and qualifying examinations. Regarding academic responsibilities, one interviewee said "School is my number one ... priority and responsibility."

Personal Responsibilities

This domain included maintaining relationships with family, friends, and significant others. Seven interviewees mentioned their families as major priorities for them; three talked about being close to their parents and the importance of talking with them by phone or e-mail. Siblings also were priorities for two interviewees. One interviewee said, "I'm very close to my family so I'm usually on the phone with my mom as well or my dad during the day and also my brother." Another said "I have a big family, so [I work at] keeping in touch with them, seeing them, visiting with them, making time for them."

Five interviewees considered their friendships as a priority. One interviewee said "I have friends that live all over the place and so keeping in contact with them through e-mail or through phone calls ... I feel is a really big responsibility."

Eight interviewees mentioned their significant others as a priority for them, whether spouse, fiance, or boyfriend/girlfriend. Two interviewees talked about their long-distance relationships. One said,
 I'm in a long distance relationship so that takes up a lot of
 time ... I have to travel about once a month ... to kind of nurture
 that relationship. I'm usually on the phone for an hour to an
 hour and a half talking to my boyfriend, so that's definitely a
 responsibility, but it's a good one.


Balancing Responsibilities

Interviewees admitted they sometimes could not balance all of their responsibilities. When this situation occurred, four interviewees indicated their professional responsibilities took precedence over their personal responsibilities. One interviewee said, "I do very much have a tendency to let my professional life overwhelm my personal life." Another commented on "not having the time that I would want to do other things because I'm spending it doing school work ... Not to be as stressed out about school work, to give time to other things." Conversely, two interviewees said their personal responsibilities took precedence over their professional responsibilities, with one commenting that "The family comes first, that's number one, because ... that's my priority."

For at least two interviewees, some of the afore mentioned responsibilities regularly received more attention than others, producing feelings of stress and guilt. Difficulty balancing these responsibilities increased stress, which lead to physical and psychological symptoms including headache, upset stomach, sleep disturbance, anxiety, irritability, and depression. Sleep disturbance was the most common physical symptom experienced by interviewees, with eight reporting some difficulty sleeping. One commented specifically,
 I don't sleep well. I either want to sleep too much and I still
 don't feel rested when I'm awake or I'm not sleeping at all
 because I'm laying in bed at night like thinking, 'Oh my God,
 there are so many things I could be doing other than laying here
 in bed' and so my body can be utterly wiped out and my mind
 will still be bouncing off the walls.


Depression was the most common psychological symptom experienced by interviewees, with four reporting some depressive symptoms, and two indicating specifically that their sleep patterns were closely associated with depression. One said
 I go through sleep cycles tied into my depression. There will
 be months when I don't sleep very well at all and that's usually
 when I break out the sleeping pills. And there will be months
 where all I want to do is sleep--all day, all night--I just don't
 want to get out of bed at all. And that's a significant sign that
 my depression is getting worse usually. But if I get lucky there
 will also be weeks where I sleep perfectly.


Coping with Stress

Interviewees indicated that, prior to entering graduate school, social support was a main method they relied on to cope with stress. During the interviews, a number commented on the value of type of support as well as source of support.

Types of support. Interviewees described social support as mutual exchange, not having to take the initiative, listening, caring and understanding, commiseration, unconditional love, perspective, and advice. In their personal lives, interviewees received social support most often from mutual exchange, not having to take the initiative, listening, caring and understanding, and unconditional love. In their academic lives they most often named the following types of support: advice, perspective, caring and understanding, and commiseration. Table 1 provides a more detailed description of the types of social support that assist in coping with stress.

Sources of support. Sources of support included people in the interviewees' academic lives as well as in their personal lives. When asked to describe people in their academic lives who provide social support, interviewees often mentioned peers in same academic program, and their professors. Eight indicated peers in same academic program as providing them with academic support. One said "Other students, especially the ones that have already been through what I've been through." Another said "People that are in the same classes with me and going through the same thing." Five indicated their professors contribute to their academic support. One said "There are a couple of professors, male and female, that I feel like I can go to if I'm really stressed, and they'll help me cope."

When asked about people in their personal lives who provide social support, interviewees named family, friends, and significant others. Eight indicated their families provided them with social support. One said "My mom is awesome ... she cares and she listens. And she does not give judgment, she does not give advice, she just listens, and it's unbelievably supportive for me." Friends also served as a source of support. One interviewee said "The people I go to most will be my friends, especially my friends that I met through the church." Six specifically mentioned their significant other as the person who provided the most social support in their lives.

Diminishing Levels of Social Support

Changes in level of social support prevented some interviewees from relying on social support to cope with stress. Diminished social support resulted from both academic and personal causes. Factors associated with interviewees' academic lives included being too busy with academic responsibilities to meet other responsibilities, and lack of support from their academic departments. Three indicated that their social health declined after entering graduate school because they kept so busy with demands created by academic responsibilities. Lack of time also detracted from contact with friends and family. Regarding decline in social health from lack of support from their academic department, one interviewee said "The quality of support ... I actually receive from my program is ... very average because ... I have to go to it instead of it coming to me."

Regarding reasons associated with their personal lives, interviewees frequently cited separation from friends and family. Five interviewees who experienced a decline in social health after entering graduate school said the major cause involved moving to another part of the country to attend school. Such moves separated interviewees from their family, friends, and significant others. One said "I've felt stress about being far from home and it's a huge change of where I'm living and ... not being near friends and family."

Perceptions & Reactions

Consequences

Inability to cope with stress from lack of social support (Bolt, 2004, Jenkins & Elliot, 2004; Jung, 1997; Lawson & Fuehrer, 1989; Mallinckrodt & Leong, 1992) caused symptoms of burnout, prompting some interviewees to consider leaving graduate school before completing their programs (Christie, Munro, & Fisher, 2004; Golde, 1998; Herzig, 2004; Reed & Giacobbi, 2004; Spicuzza & De Voe, 1982; Pines & Keinan, 2005). Comments indicated students lose their sense of purpose if they cannot see how the time and effort they dedicate to their professional/academic lives will allow them to achieve their goals. One said "It doesn't necessarily feel like your doing what you want to be doing for the rest of your life." Others said "I feel like I've been in school for 7 years now and I still don't know what my purpose is. I haven't found my purpose or what career path I truly want to take," and "I wasn't really sure how the program fit into what I felt I was called to do with my life."

An unsupportive environment was given as another reason for leaving graduate school early (Christie, Munro, & Fisher, 2004; Ellis, 2001; Herzig, 2004). This perception leads students to feel as if they do not belong. One interviewee said
 The people there weren't very supportive ... the professors were
 more focused on their research than in teaching, and they really
 didn't have a lot of time for their
 students, and ... you didn't really
 get to know and spend time with the other students, so you
 didn't really have that kind of support and camaraderie.


Another described the graduate school environment as "Too focused on little things and [professors] forget the big picture. And they don't care in some ways about students in the realm of stress and health."

Implications

To reduce stress, thereby decreasing the likelihood of burnout and attrition, graduate students need help in developing effective strategies to cope with stress especially by enhancing social support networks (Bolt, 2004, Jenkins & Elliot, 2004; Jung, 1997; Lawson & Fuehrer, 1989; Mallinckrodt & Leong, 1992). Interviewees mentioned several ways to enhance the quality of support they receive including being closer to loved ones, taking the initiative to become more concerned, and giving more to others (mutual exchange). Four interviewees indicated their quality of social support could be enhanced if they lived closer to their loved ones. One said "I would like to be a lot closer to the people that I care about." Another was hoping to "see them a little bit more often, doing things with them." One interviewee who viewed social support being enhanced through others taking the initiative and by being more concerned said "my first choice is not to turn to other people, but sometimes if people ask me about things then I'll tell them more." Two interviewees saw their social support enhanced by giving more to others. They indicated that "it's finding that balance with your friends and your family of when you can help them, when they can help you," and
 Sometimes I think maybe I need to be ... more focused on
 helping other people ... I think that helping other people work
 through what they're dealing with or whatever you get a lot
 of help out of that.


These comments suggest that, to enhance social support, graduate students need opportunities to give and receive social support. This process may be accomplished through service learning and involvement in community activities.

Responses

One significant approach to reducing stress among graduate students involves increasing social support in both the academic and personal realms. The prevalence of stress makes it imperative that faculty, health center, and student services personnel work collaboratively to help students develop social support networks to cope with stress (Bolt, 2004, Jenkins & Elliot, 2004; Jung, 1997; Lawson & Fuehrer, 1989; Mallinckrodt & Leong, 1992). Improved coping strategies can reduce the risk of burnout (Christie, Munro, & Fisher, 2004; Golde, 1998; Herzig, 2004; Reed & Giacobbi, 2004; Spicuzza & De Voe, 1982; Pines & Keinan, 2005), while enhancing overall well-being for graduate students in all dimensions of health (Deckro, Ballinger, Hoyt, & Wilcher, 2002; Dixon & Reid, 2000; Duenwald, 2002; Frazier & Schauben, 1994; Geraghty, 1997; Hudd, Dumlao, Erdmann-Sager, Murray, Phan, Soukas, et al, 2000).

This preliminary protocol established a foundation for future work with larger, more diverse groups of graduate students, as well as students who dropped out of graduate school prior to completing their degrees and recent graduates early in their professional careers. An expanded protocol will allow observations between levels of stress and social support among graduate students, students who fail to complete their degrees, and young professionals. This information will help higher education personnel and professional organizations more effectively meet the needs of students and employees. Future work also should consider how the specific types of stress students experience influence the type and source of support they need to cope effectively. Such information will assist professionals in developing social support networks of people who can provide the specific type of support needed to counteract stressors commonly experienced by graduate students.

References

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By Beth Johnson, Ph.D., MPH, CHES, Lynchburg College

Abigail S. Batia, Orange County Public Schools

Jolie Haun, Ph.D., Ed.S., M.S., College of Medicine, University of Arizona
Table 1: Types of Social Support That Assist in Coping with Stress

Types of Social Number of Interviewee Quotes
Support Interviewees

Mutual Exchange N = 3 "Mutual exchange really balances
 out my world because it makes me
 feel like I'm contributing
 something to [my friends] lives
 and they're contributing it to me
 too."

Not Having to N = 1 "My friend will call and ask, 'How
Take the Initiative are you doing this week?' and
 that's the kind of things that
 helps relieve stress--just knowing
 that someone else is thinking of
 you."

Listening N = 8 "Just being able to call them up
 and have them listen to me
 complain or vent about what's
 frustrating me and then after
 getting that out, they'll take me
 out and we can do something to get
 my mind off of it. So, I think
 that's the biggest way that I cope
 with my stress."

Caring and N = 7 "Just knowing that someone cares,
Understanding that I'm not out there all by
 N = 3 myself because it's easy to get
From Family overwhelmed with ... thinking that
 no one understands or that no one
 cares what's going on with you."

Commiseration N = 7 "I think that they identify with
 what I'm feeling, because it's
From Personal Lives N = 2 probably related to school and
 that's nice because you feel
From Professional/ N = 5 empathy from them ... people that
Academic Live are living this life can
 understand your circumstances. And
 it's comforting."

Unconditional Love N = 3 "Know[ing] that they'll listen and
 that they'll be nonjudgmental and
 they'll give their opinion and
 give me options and support that
 way. I just know that ... I can go
 to them with anything."

Perspective N = 2 "A lot of times they put things in
 perspective for me. I worry about
 the little details sometimes, that
 I'm not doing enough or that I'm
 behind. And a lot of times they
 just ground me and put me into
 perspective or where I need to
 be."

Advice N = 8 "We just analyze this problem
 together and share how we are
From Personal Lives N = 3 doing with it, come up with a
 solution."
From Professional/ N = 5
Academic Lives
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Author:Johnson, Beth; Batia, Abigail S.; Haun, Jolie
Publication:VAHPERD Journal
Article Type:Survey
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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