When Erik Faber ’13 and Yoo Jung Kim ’14 recently reconnected via Facebook, it had been years since they’d studied in Kresge Library or socialized as pre-med students. The friends parted ways after college: Kim is now a med student at Stanford taking a gap year to do research with faculty members, while Faber is pursuing an MD/PhD program at the University of Minnesota.
But as graduate students and aspiring physician-scientists, Faber and Kim still have a lot in common. And through social media, they’ve been able to continue a conversation about a problem that plagues both academia and medicine: burnout. “All too often, we’ve known graduate students that enter their program feeling energized and optimistic, and quickly that energy dissipates,” Faber says.
Data backs up their observations. A 2011 survey of graduate students at major US universities found that 37 percent of grad students in the natural sciences and 41 percent of engineering and computer science students report feeling “a bit more” or “a lot more” stress than they can handle, while a 2010 study at seven US universities found that over half of med students had experienced burnout.
Burnout among med students is already a well-recognized problem, say Faber and Kim. Working in both medical and academic realms, the former classmates were able to compare interventions across disciplines. “While our medical schools seemed to be making an effort to improve the mental health of its trainees, the PhD and graduate programs hadn't started implementing a similar process,” Kim says. “We wondered why that was the case.”
Instead of just commiserating about it, the former classmates put pen to paper. Faber knew that Kim had plenty of writing experience—from opinion columns for The Dartmouth to authoring the book, What Every Science Student Should Know—so he proposed they team up to write an article and bring visibility to the issue. The piece, published earlier this month in Nature, draws from successful examples in the medical field to outline possible solutions for burnout in academia.
Titled “What medicine can teach academia about academic burnout,” it offers actionable advice: from enabling time away from the lab, to connecting graduate students with the public and non-academic job opportunities, to facilitating external incentives and research into graduate student wellness.
The piece draws both from the duo’s Dartmouth bond and the experience gained after graduation. “I was pleasantly surprised how much we agreed,” says Faber. “And coming from different graduate institutions makes our argument about cultural change in academia even stronger.”