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Perceived Stress Reported by Fisheries Graduate Students at Tennessee Technological University.

Studies have been performed to assess stress levels of students enrolled at universities across the United States (Jemmott and Magloire, 1988; Whitman et al. 1984). However, very few studies have been performed to assess stress levels of graduate students, and to our knowledge, there have been no such studies conducted on fisheries science graduate students. Students within the field of fisheries are often required to obtain an advanced degree, especially a Master of Science or Master of Arts, in order to obtain employment in their chosen field. Therefore, the pressure to be successful in obtaining this degree is a factor that could possibly be stressful for these students. The objective of this study was to determine those facets of the fisheries graduate program of study at Tennessee Technological University which may be perceived as stressful to fisheries graduate students. In performing this study, an assumption was that fisheries graduate programs at other universities may be similar with respect to these facets.


All sixteen graduate students with a specialization in fisheries science in the Tennessee Technological University Biology Department volunteered to be interviewed to determine levels of stress while going through their programs of study. Of the students interviewed, 13 were males and 3 were females. All students had been in the program from 1 to 2.5 years.

Interviews were conducted privately and individually either in the student's office or in the Counseling Center at Tennessee Technological University. All interviews were performed by the Director of the Counseling Center, a licensed psychologist with no direct organizational connection to the Biology Department. Prior to questioning, all students were asked to sign a voluntary consent form. Eighteen questions were asked of each student. All questions were designed to be of an unobtrusive nature and to cover all aspects of their graduate program (Table 1).

Table 1

Graduate student survey

1. Why did you decide to seek a graduate degree in Biology at Tennessee Tech?

2. How long have you been a graduate student at Tennessee Tech?

3. Do you feel that graduate studies in Biology at Tennessee Tech are stressful to you?

4. Do you feel stressed in the classes that you take for your degree objective?

5. Do you feel threatened by, members of the graduate faculty? Why?

6. Do you expect to feel stressed, or were you stressed, during your graduate seminar?

7. Do you feel that other graduate students are stressed during their graduate seminar?

8. If the answers to questions 6 or 7 were yes, what aspect(s) of the graduate seminar do you think result in these feelings?

9. Do you feel stressed about conducting independent research? Is this the first time that you have conducted independent research?

10. If the answer to question 9 is yes, why do you feel this way?

11. Do you feel that graduate faculty assist you enough with your research? Does this result in any stress for you?

12. Do you feel stressed about writing a thesis concerning your research? How do you plan to handle this stress?

13. Do you feel that graduate faculty should encourage graduate students to publish the results of their research? Would this be stressful for you? Why?

14. Do you expect to feel stressed when you have your oral defense at the end of your graduate program? Are there specific aspects of the defense that seem stressful to you?

15. If the answer to question 14 is yes, how do you plan to handle this stress?

16. If graduate school is stressful to you, would you recommend that other students pursue a graduate degree in Biology at Tennessee Tech?

17. What things could be done to reduce the level of stress in Biology graduate students at Tennessee Tech?

18. Do you feel that Tennessee Tech Biology graduate students are under an abnormal amount of stress as compared to Biology graduate students at other schools, and why? What do you know of students from other Biology graduate programs, as it relates to stress levels?

19. Knowing what you do now, would you have applied to become a Biology graduate student at Tennessee Tech if you had the chance to do it again?


There was general consensus among the graduate students interviewed that their primary considerations for selecting Tennessee Technological University for their Master of Science were: a) a good reputation among professionals in the field, b) the ability to work under certain major professors that had been recommended to the student, c) availability of financial assistance, and d) the location of the university. All students indicated that they realized an advanced degree was essential for them to be employed and to progress professionally in their selected field.

When students were asked whether their graduate studies were stressful to them, most responded that they were. However, those same students reported expecting some stress when they entered the graduate program. They also felt that the level of stress was manageable. At times, however, they reported feeling higher levels of stress. This perception was particularly evident when demands of course work, field work, and research deadlines were required concurrently. Particular times when high levels of stress were indicated included seminar presentations, defense of their thesis, and the demands of one particular course (e.g. an advanced statistics course). These students also indicated that time management and finding a balance in their life so that other personally important aspects could be fit into their schedules (e.g. exercise, fishing, family, and hobbies) were two most important aspects of coping with these stressors..

As mentioned above, an advanced statistical analysis course was indicated as the most stressful for the students interviewed. Reasons given for this response were based on the subject matter of the course and the newness of the material covered. Another course mentioned as stressful was Graduate Seminar. Reasons given for perceptions of stress related to Graduate Seminar centered around the probing nature of questions asked concerning the subject matter of the presentations, public speaking for the first time in front or a large audience, and concerns about making errors in presentations that they might be reprimanded for publicly. Some respondents indicated that they felt as if some of the issues would be better received and less stressful if they were presented privately.

The students interviewed offered ideas for stress management for those presenting their graduate seminar. These ideas included discussing the presentation with their graduate advisor prior to making the presentation, rehearsing the presentation with their advisor as well as their peers, listening to others present their seminar before presenting themselves, giving a presentation to another audience (e.g. professional meetings) before presenting their seminar, and having an opportunity to review issues privately before having to present a public response. By utilizing these stress management techniques, the students felt they would be much less stressed when presenting their thesis research before the faculty.

Although the students expressed concerns with the manner used by faculty in dealing with the Graduate Seminar, all students felt that the graduate faculty in the Biology Department were helpful and considerate of student's needs. In this regard, the relationship with their major professor was considered to be of utmost importance. All of the students interviewed felt a close relationship with their major professor both as a mentor and guide through the rigorous demands of their program of study.

When asked whether they received enough faculty support with their independent research, the answer was uniformly positive. The students felt that this helped to lower stress levels when they conducted independent research. Most of the students reported not feeling stressed about performing independent research. Those that did perceive the task as stressful indicated that this was due to independent research being a new task that had not been performed previously. Reported stressful aspects included fears of making critical mistakes, having poor writing skills, and concerns over whether their research was significant and publishable. Those that found independent research not to be stressful felt well prepared to conduct their research because they had performed research as an undergraduate and had strong guidance from their major professor throughout this learning process.

Almost all of the students reported moderate to high levels of stress concerning the writing of their thesis. The predominant reason provided for these feelings was that this was a new and notably important experience for them. Additional concerns included: criticisms encountered when their thesis was edited, the process of defending their thesis, the fact that the defense was an unfamiliar experience, perceived special pressures to perform, the tremendous amount of material that they were responsible for, questions often asked in a public venue, performance required in front of professors, and realization that their degree was contingent on their performance. To handle stress related to their thesis defense, the students overwhelmingly stated they felt that preparation was essential in terms of knowing their topic well, in-depth study prior to the defense, reviewing topics with peers and with their major professor, and thinking carefully before responding to questions.

Even though stressors were identified by these students, all reported that they were receiving an excellent education. They indicated that their professors were knowledgeable, and that they would not hesitate to recommend the fisheries graduate program to others or to re-enroll themselves to experience their programs again. The stress levels that they encountered were considered manageable and were not considered beyond what they expected when they began their programs. However, in recommending improvements, students indicated that orientation programs for new students include expectations of the faculty, more contact with the major professor, an established system for support, and inclusion of stress and time management workshops.


All of the participants reported feeling very positive about their fisheries graduate program. The perceived stressors fell within expected limits as reported by the participants. All students interviewed felt there was a good balance between learning and faculty support, particularly from their faculty advisor. Collegiality among students was high and important in their feeling part of a "close-knit" group. Open communication and support with both peers and faculty was considered one of the keys to their success. Even though students reported particular stresses during their seminar and through their thesis writing and defense, all felt that the challenge of obtaining the degree, which stress was considered to be a part of, was within expected and tolerable limits. All students expressed that the education and benefits derived from obtaining their M.S. degree was worth the effort. In this regard, all students felt that they would pursue this degree again if the opportunity was available, and would recommend such a pursuit to others interested in a professional career in fisheries.


Jemmott, J.B., III, and Magloire, K. (1988). Academic stress, social support, and secretory immunoglobulin A. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 55(5):803-810.

Whitman, N.A., Spendlove, D.C., and Clark, C.H. (1984). Student Stress: Effects and Solutions. Association for the Study of Higher Education, Washington, D.C.

Dr. Peter L. Kranz, Director of the Counseling Center, Tennessee Technological University, Cookeville, TN. Dr. S. Bradford Cook, Associate Professor, Department of Biology at Tennessee Technological University, Cookeville, TN. Dr. Nick L. Lund, Executive Director, Northern Arizona University in Yuma, Arizona.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Peter L. Kranz, Director, Counseling Center: Box 5094, Tennessee Technological University, Cookeville, TN 38505-0001.
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Article Details
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Author:Lund, Nick L.
Publication:Journal of Instructional Psychology
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 1999
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