By Leana Ramos
Stress is a part of life. As postbacs, we all experience some form of stress whether it is due to work, adjusting to a new lab, contemplating career goals, completing graduate/professional school applications, or balancing work and personal life. Recently, I came across an article published in Nature Biotechnology showing that many trainees continue to experience stress-associated symptoms, such as depression and anxiety, as they further their education.1 From reading the article, I was surprised to find out that “43-46% of [surveyed UC Berkeley] graduate students in biological sciences, physical sciences, and engineering” reported feeling depressed,2 while a majority of doctoral students at the University of Arizona reported stress.3 Thankfully, at the NIH, trainees are not alone. The supportive staff of the NIH Office of Intramural Training & Education (OITE) provides numerous resources to help us cope with stress and focus on our wellbeing now and in the future.
I have personally found OITE workshops and activities incredibly helpful, so I wanted to share several opportunities with you here. There are two wellness workshops held quarterly: “Tune In & Take Care: Managing Stress and Promoting Wellbeing” and “Becoming a Resilient Scientist.” OITE also provides several wellness-oriented groups on a weekly basis, including the “Mindfulness Meditation” group (Tuesdays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m.), “Stress and Resilience” discussion groups (Tuesday afternoons), and “Wellness Wednesdays” (12 noon—feel free to bring your lunch!). All of these groups offer ways to manage stress, build resilience, and learn strategies for holistic self-care. Finally, OITE hosts monthly “Wellness Events,” which involve fun activities that help build community at the NIH. Last year, November’s Wellness Event was “Having Fun with Zumba” and December’s event was the OITE Holiday Party.
Dr. Michael Sheridan, OITE Special Advisor for Diversity and Wellness Programs, shares two general messages with the postbac community: practice self-care and have a mindful work ethic. She emphasizes, “To do well, one has to be well.” According to Dr. Sheridan, research shows that people are most productive when they take self-care seriously. Dr. Sheridan also shares the importance of having a mindful work ethic. She encourages postbacs to take a healthy and holistic approach to balancing their work and personal life. She compares life to a circle with work as just a part of that circle. In addition to work, it is important to dedicate time to family, friends, hobbies, and other interests.
In the process of applying to graduate/professional schools and jobs, postbacs may feel particularly stressed. During the application process, Dr. Sheridan advises to delineate what you can control and what you cannot control, and then focus on what you can control and be proactive. Dr. Sheridan also suggests that postbacs take advantage of their resources—reach out to their mentors and postbac community, review application tips on the OITE blog, and participate in the various OITE career-related activities, such as mock interviews and getting help with applications (she urges postbacs to reach out early in the application process!). Finally, Dr. Sheridan encourages postbacs to read their emails daily to stay tuned to all of the great resources that OITE offers. She reminds us that “practicing self-care and promoting well-being is important to be successful and happy in life,” and OITE is here to help!
The Nature Biotechnology article suggests that even though a high number of trainees report experiencing significant stress, practicing strategies that promote mental health and general wellbeing can be significantly beneficial in addressing this problem. Although it may sound easier said than done for many postbacs, it is important to maintain work-life balance. As NIH postbacs, we are fortunate to have so many opportunities to learn self-care strategies to live healthier and happier.
Special acknowledgments to Drs. Michael Sheridan and Sharon Milgram for sharing NIH OITE wellness opportunities.
- Evans TM et al. (2018). “Evidence for a Mental Health Crisis in Graduate Education.” Nature Biotechnology 36, 282-284.
- UC Berkeley Graduate Assembly. (2014). Graduate Student Happiness and Well-being Report. Accessed Online: http://ga.berkeley.edu//wellbeingreport.
- Smith E, and Brooks Z. (2015). “Graduate Student Mental Health.” NAGPS Institute. Accessed Online: http://nagps.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/NAGPS_Institute_mental_health_survey_report_2015.pdf.