Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Stress Over the Life Course: A Qualitative Analysis of Graduate Students’ Stress and Commitment During the Graduate Career
by Turner, Christopher O., Ph.D., Indiana University, 2020, 200; 28028767
Abstract (Summary)

Graduate students experience a number of challenges that threaten their mental health. However, although research is growing in this area, these experiences are still understudied. This dissertation uses a stress and life course framework to investigate how students deal with stressful situations that they encounter over the course of their graduate career. Additionally, I explore students’ commitment to their graduate program and graduate student role-identity, particularly focusing on what accounts for changes in commitment over time and whether a relationship exists between students’ levels of stress and commitment. I interviewed 45 current and former graduate students—including some who exited their programs—from two doctoral programs in the humanities and social sciences. Qualitative interviews focused on the stressors they encountered at each stage of their career, how they characterized the trajectories of their perceived stress and commitment, how, if at all, they combated stressors, and the factors that influenced their stress and commitment levels. The stressors students referenced most often were those related to their student-role responsibilities. Students in their first year—and advanced students recalling stressors in their first year—faced challenges pertaining to coursework, the main role-responsibility for students in the early stages of their graduate career. As students transitioned to new career stages, they encountered new predominant responsibilities that students found stressful. In addition to program challenges, students faced stressors that existed outside of their program such as the biographical disruption caused by the move to their program location. Students faced health problems and challenging family events, all problems that could emerge regardless of career stage. Additionally, occupying a marginalized status contributed to added stressors for women, international students and students of color. Students’ stress increased when they encountered new and unfamiliar challenges, when dealing with family life events, and when their student role-responsibilities clashed with their family role-responsibilities. Stress decreased when they used calendar breaks or opportunities within their program responsibilities to take breaks from work, when they found enjoyment in their role-responsibilities, and as a result of the confidence gained when they persisted and achieved success in their efforts. Students’ believed faculty focused on student engagement with program milestones when conceptualizing commitment from the faculty’s perspective. For students, commitment referred to their willingness and desire to be a student and be in the program. They mainly used engagement with their role-responsibilities as evidence of their commitment. Changes in commitment were the consequence of identity-based transitions that students experienced. Students’ commitment increased when they enjoyed their work and when they were certain they wanted to continue on in the field as professionals. Student’s commitment decreased when they discovered elements of their work that they did not like and when they were certain they did not want to continue their work as professionals in the future. Commitment also increased when their student role-identities were validated through academic success and/or faculty acknowledgement and support. These moments represented points at which students resolved stressors or found support that would help them resolve stressors. Students’ commitment decreased when their academic endeavors failed to validate their student role-identities and when faculty did not provide support to them. These were points when stressors were not resolved as expected. In general, perceived stress did not influence students’ commitment, but how stressors were resolved and whether expected social support was available did influence their commitment. Commitment did influence perceived stress for some students, as increased commitment was associated with the added stress of wanting to demonstrate that commitment through work. Students identified a number different ties they turned to for support, most students having a support network of significant others such as romantic partners, family members, and friends. Furthermore, the most common supporters students reported were their department peers, those who were able to offer a wide range of support given their dual status as significant and similar others. Students also cited faculty support as important. Faculty were not just similar others, but expert similar others, some of whom provided emotional support characteristic of more intimate ties such as family and friends. That students could turn to faculty for emotional support was seemingly a result of faculty initiative, reaching out to create relationships in which students could rely on them for that form of support. Family members, peers, and faculty also created circumstances that created additional stress for students, circumstances that helped to further elucidate what students wanted from those relationships. These findings illustrate how a focus on stress processes—stressors, coping, social support—influence life trajectories beyond stress levels, specifically, trajectories of commitment and subsequent movement through program stages. The findings also provide a window into key moments when coping assistance and supportive interventions would help sustain graduate students’ emotional well-being.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Thoits, Peggy A., Perry, Brea L.
Commitee: Thoits, Peggy A., Perry, Brea L., Pavalko, Eliza K., Calarco, Jessica M.
School: Indiana University
Department: Sociology
School Location: United States -- Indiana
Source: DAI-A 82/2(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Sociology, Higher education, Mental health
Keywords: Commitment, Graduate education, Social support, Stress
Publication Number: 28028767
ISBN: 9798662590311
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