Buddies, annoyances and depression

By Grant Jacobs 21/10/2009

Reading an article on Destigmatizing depression among medical trainees or graduates which, in turn, points to an article by Karen Hebe “Destigmatizing Depression” on Science magazine’s Science careers website, reminded me of an idea I had to improve the grad students’ and post-docs’ lot a few years ago.

The original article focuses on medical trainees (in the USA), but the issue could be easily seen to apply more widely to university graduates in general, as Abel Pharmboy says.

I once vaguely suggested that there be better support for students. This was taken up, but not in the form I’d envisaged. What I had in mind was a little more pro-active, a buddy-system of sorts, where the rules of the game were something like this:

1. Every new grad student or post-doc had to choose a buddy, no option.

2. The buddy had to be more established staff (and essentially by definition older and further down the system). They don’t have to be permanent staff, but they have to likely to be around for a year or so. Other than this, the younger buddy can choose who they want. Ideally, they should be able to choose a buddy from outside their department, if that’s their choice.

3. The buddies have to meet every so often, once a month or whatever would be appropriate, in an informal setting.

4. There would be no formal reporting; anything arising would be done in a natural, organic way.

Maybe this is too formalised for shy ol’ NZ, but the idea was to prevent people from falling between the cracks.

Of course, the idea is that the “senior” buddy would look out for the younger one and mediate any issues that they might have informally.

Most people form a connection with a post-doc they get on with, or whatever, but this doesn’t come naturally to everyone. I know that–generally speaking!–academic staff are a kindly lot and know the stresses of being a grad student or post-doc, for the obvious reason that they’ve been there themselves. It’s just that it seems to me that some people fall through the cracks all the same and that it can be hard to pick up other people’s stress until it’s past the time it really should have been dealt with. This idea wouldn’t do away with counsellors, but provide a network for them.

I included post-docs in my thinking at that time. In particular, the reference to “For some M.D.-Ph.D. students, there can be a significant loss of a support system that they may have developed” strikes a chord and was part of my thinking. New institutions and grant-funding approaches can leave post-docs out in the cold, too.

Part of the idea was to cover for those from backgrounds that might not try to talk to someone. As an example, a relative is currently a counsellor in Asia and has commented that students there rarely seek help on their own initiative.

Any thoughts? (Stories? Mopes?!)

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