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By: Imelda Wei Ding Lo


The following is based on an interview conducted with Professor Jane Freeman, the founding Director of the School of Graduate Studies’ Graduate Centre for Academic Communication (GCAC) at the University of Toronto. A Senior Fellow of Massey College and a member of the Stratford Festival’s Senate, Jane’s areas of expertise are Shakespeare, classical rhetoric, and oral and written communication. In 2023, she was awarded the highest honour for teaching at the University of Toronto, the President’s Teaching Award.

I am a Director of the GCAC, so I have had the chance over the years to work with hundreds of Master’s and PhD students on their academic writing and speaking. I often see students in stressful situations, such as when writing their first assign- ment in graduate school, writing grant proposals, preparing for a dissertation defense, a job talk, or a comprehensive exam.

You ask me about my experience with graduate students and mental health. I think it’s important to state right up front that I’m not a mental health expert. Mental health experts have vital and very different training

than I have. At the GCAC, we often see students who feel discouraged, overwhelmed, or stressed, because those feelings sometimes come up when students are struggling in isolation on their writing, and we un- derstand the importance of helping students find support from a mental health expert if that’s what they seek.

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Dr. Jane Freeman, director of the Graduate Studies’ Graduate Centre for Academic Communication



Q: Are there any parts of grad school that are particularly isolating or po- tentially challenging for students?

In working with graduate students, I’ve noticed three times when many students face the challenge of going through a major transition:

First, when students enter the largely independent world of graduate school from the largely dependent world of undergraduate studies. There is an inherent change in the nature of work that graduate versus undergraduate students undertake: much undergraduate work takes place in groups, as students prepare for exams and write essays/reports on the same topics, while much graduate work takes place alone as students pick their own topics and conduct their own research.

Second, when graduate students finish their coursework and “achieve candidacy.” When PhD students complete their coursework, they move even further into solitary work as they leave classroom learn- ing behind and start writing their dissertations alone. The skills needed to write productively and confi- dently in isolation aren’t skills many students have previously had the chance to develop; those skills take time and choice to cultivate.

Third, when students see graduation coming and prepare to leave their lives as a student. By the time stu- dents complete a PhD, they’ve been in school for a long time, and being a student has been part of their identity. Often, students graduate without certainty about what’s coming next, and that can cause anxiety.

These times of transition can bring challenges, but they’re easier to navigate if students realize they’re not alone, support is available, and (most important of all), they’re stronger and more resourceful than they knew they were.

Q: In recent years, what significant changes may have impacted students’ well-being from your point of view?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people adapted to doing things online. While this has made things more efficient, it has further increased the already potentially isolating work of graduate students.

When working from home, students risk missing out on the natural social connections that were available be- fore the pandemic, such as meeting colleagues in the lounge, chatting after class, having lunch together in the cafeteria, or working out at the gym. These casual interactions help students get out of their heads and into their bodies, and remind them they are not alone. They also sometimes lead to new friendships and unexpected research ideas or collaborations.

At GCAC, we’ve been trying to offer more in-person classes and work- shops because we know the power of bringing students together both to learn with and from each other and to help them realize they are all struggling with similar challenges. We haven’t had nearly as much uptake for in-person classes, I think, because students think it’s more ef- ficient and convenient to work from home, but if increased isolation causes people’s writing to get stuck and their confidence to get shaky, then coming to campus to learn in the company of others can actually be a far more efficient means for students to move their writing forward.

Q: What role may artificial intelligence play in graduate students’ experience with well-being?

I’m no expert on AI, and AI is very new, so I can only discuss my concerns. My primary concern is that overreliance on ChatGPT could interfere with students’ doing the hard work to develop their own expertise and essential skills, which could, in turn, lead to lower self-esteem and confidence.

Let me give you an example: I ran a workshop recently on academic writing and ChatGPT. One of the students asked: could you tell us how to use ChatGPT to write a literature review? This question made me very concerned because a literature review isn’t just a string of words summarizing various articles. Writing an effective literature review requires researchers to become deeply familiar with the research in their field as it relates to their own specific work. It’s a slow process that involves developing real expertise, which takes time, but it’s also the foundation on which original re- search can be built.

When reading through the litera- ture, you learn what people have done, what they haven’t done, and who disagrees with what. Ultimate- ly, building expertise allows you to join scholarly conversations with expertise and confidence, whether it’s in a casual chat in your department lounge, a discussion with your supervisor, a chapter of your thesis, or when answering questions in a job talk.

A student who sees a literature review as a product to hand in, and relies on Chat GPT to generate such a product, leaves themself dependent on external intervention and without the knowledge needed to speak and write with the confidence of an expert.

Q: Some grad students feel stuck in a rut, especially if they aren't having good luck with their job searches. Do you have any suggestions for how they can maintain positivity?

Graduate students are specialized, and specialized jobs take time to find. People with specialized training often experience a period of uncertainty and unstable employment, such as short-term contracts, as they look for jobs well suited to their specific skill set. It’s not very common for the right job in the right place to become available just at the right time.

I’d encourage students to recognize that lots of people (myself included) move once or twice and go through a series of finite jobs as they look for a permanent job. I’d also encourage students not to lose their nerve. The fact that navigating the job market takes time is not a reflection of your value as a highly skilled and worthy candidate.

Q: What does resilience mean to you?

I find resilience a sort of unhelpful word. To me, it sounds like “tough it out when the going gets hard,” but it’s reactive rather than proactive.

For me, resourcefulness is a more helpful concept. Resourcefulness to me means that when I face a challenge – whether a writing problem like writer’s block or a physical issue like a stiff neck after too long at the computer – I know how to help myself. Rather than feeling reliant on external help (like waiting for an appointment with a massage therapist to relieve a sore neck), I know that swimming, or certain yoga moves can help me help my own neck. It’s like the power to address the problem has gradually moved from out- side me to inside me.

That same feeling of growing self-reliance can also be experienced related to our writing, or to our disci-

plinary expertise. In several of our courses in GCAC, we aim to help students develop a sense of resource- fulness in their own writing process. Even experienced writers get stuck in their writing sometimes, but ex- perienced writers know how to help themselves get unstuck: they feel resourceful in the isolation of their office. They are in touch with their own sense of agency.

As a young student, I didn’t have expertise in my field, so I relied on my teachers to learn the answers. But as my expertise has deepened, I’ve gained confidence in my ability to find answers to my own questions. That feeling of growing expertise is a form of resourcefulness: I’m bet- ter able to answer my own research questions now, and part of developing expertise is knowing what I don’t know and when I need to seek expertise beyond my own.

A sense of personal resourcefulness can also help us cope with challenging times. If we’re in touch with how we’re feeling, and we feel some confidence in our ability to help ourselves, we can consider whether what would be most helpful today would be an uninterrupted work day to catch up, or going for a swim to give our body a break from the computer, or reaching out to others for guidance, or social contact.

A growing sense of resourcefulness is something I would wish for all of my students, for knowing deep down that you can count on your- self makes the journey of graduate school and of life much more manageable and enjoyable.

Edited by Ami Patel & Talia Vacca