Mental Health Opportunities for Professional Empowerment in STEM (M-HOPES) at Montana Technology University, Montana State University Billings and the University of Montana

Graduate science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs nationwide report a decline in student well-being. A significant challenge STEM graduate programs face is retention, especially for underrepresented minorities, women, nontraditional students and international students. Research consistently shows that all types of students in STEM graduate programs may experience inadequate mentoring, perceived absence of direction in their chosen professional fields and difficulties finding support to address mental health obstacles.

To help address this gap in graduate STEM education, the U.S. National Science Foundation funded the Mental Health Opportunities for Professional Empowerment in STEM (M-HOPES) project, a collaborative initiative led by Montana Technological University, Montana State University Billings and the University of Montana. The pilot project aims to design, assess and implement a range of sustainable and scalable strategies to enhance the mental health of STEM graduate students across the three universities, and ultimately, graduate schools across the country.  

Principal investigators Beverly Hartline, Sarah Keller and Ashby Kinch describe the potentially transformative impact of the M-HOPES program, designed to provide STEM graduate students with professional development, inclusive experiences and sustainable mental health skills to foster their success in graduate school and beyond. In parallel, the project offers STEM faculty opportunities to gain mentoring skills to support and advance diverse STEM graduate students.

What motivated the project team in your decision to seek an Innovations in Graduate Education (IGE) grant? 

In the face of shifting technologies, we saw an urgent need to equip STEM graduate students with thrival skills and faculty with holistic mentoring skills that could improve the departmental and campus STEM cultures to be more inclusive. Inclusive scientific cultures broaden and deepen the idea pool needed to accelerate STEM advances. We see a need to promote openness to the diverse ways of thinking in STEM that bring in new ideas. This may include valuing indigenous or multicultural approaches to research and scientific thinking. It may require offering services to accommodate mid-career and non-traditional students, and building supportive communities on university campuses for all kinds of students.    

We recognized the increasing concerns related to mental health among STEM graduate students. The rigorous academic pressures of STEM programs, coupled with the often isolating nature of STEM graduate work, steep power differential with mentor faculty and career uncertainty may lead to anxiety, depression and/or burnout. We hope the NSF IGE grant will enable us to develop strategies to mitigate these challenges and produce a healthier, more supportive educational environment for all STEM graduate students. 

Our team postulates that addressing these challenges in graduate STEM education can lead to increased retention rates, as students are more likely to continue their education when they have access to program support and feel mentally equipped. We acknowledge that academic success intertwines deeply with mental and emotional well-being. In any case, we are collecting valuable data to understand the specific types of challenges experienced by STEM graduate students and their faculty. 

What aspect(s) of your IGE project are the key components that make the program successful, particularly in terms of its significant contributions to graduate STEM education? 

The desired benefits to STEM graduate students and scalability of the M-HOPES program can be attributed to several key components: 

  1. Cognitive behavioral skills training. Cognitive behavioral therapy strategies equip students with crucial skills for stress management and wellness.  
  2. Graduate student well-being survey. This survey assesses the mental health state among students, providing valuable data for graduate deans to tailor and improve mental health initiatives.  
  3. Student support groups. These groups encourage peer-to-peer interaction and resilience across fields and departments.  
  4. Positive psychology workshops. Specific strategy sessions teach students positive psychology techniques to enhance their ability to deal with academic and personal pressures. 
  5. Faculty workshops. STEM faculty learn and implement holistic mentoring skills to enhance inclusiveness and transform departmental culture.  
  6. Community activities engaging advisors and students. Targeted group activities offer the opportunity for collaborative problem-solving and gaining mutual respect for each other separate from their research relationship.  

Tell us how your IGE project supports the underrepresented graduate STEM student community at your respective schools.  

Graduate STEM program participants at the three institutions — Montana State University Billings, the University of Montana and Montana Technological University — include working, commuting students, Native American students and international students, among others. For these non-traditional populations, the project aims to provide paths for work-school-life balance and mental wellness to contribute to student success.  

Preliminary participant feedback indicates students find the M-HOPES activities helpful in managing the many stressors they face. Equally important, STEM faculty find the workshops on inclusion and mentoring to be eye-opening and beneficial.  

We anticipate that, as we broaden to include more universities, we will increase participation numbers and diversity and be able to collect data that will enable us to fine-tune the approach and provide insights adaptable to other campuses and settings.  

As you examine the M-HOPES program outcomes to date, what would you say are the program pillars that will enable the project team to scale the program and make it portable to additional graduate STEM schools?  

As we continue to gather data on the different project components, we have learned the following pillars are key to sustainability and scalability. 

  1. Comprehensive mental health integration. We aspire to further integrate mental health awareness and support into core graduate STEM programs. This involves ensuring that mental health education is accessible and that referrals to needed resources become an integral part of the academic and research training in STEM fields. The goal is to learn from student mental health outcomes and make support services a valued component of the educational experience. Note that this approach does NOT include converting STEM faculty into mental health professionals or counselors. 
  2. Enhanced research and data-driven approaches. A significant part of our vision is to strengthen the research component by conducting in-depth studies to better understand the mental health challenges specific to STEM graduate students and to use these data to refine and innovate our approach. The team is committed to a data-driven strategy that evolves based on empirical evidence and student/faculty feedback. We are also committed to sharing our strategies and experiences with other campuses, so they can identify and tackle the issues on their campuses. 
  3. Building a resilient STEM community. We envision a future where the STEM graduate community is not only academically proficient but also resilient and well equipped to handle the pressures and challenges of research advancing the frontiers of knowledge. This vision involves fostering supportive and inclusive STEM communities, encouraging peer mentorship, and ensuring that mental well-being is prioritized as an integral part of academic and professional development.  
  4. Policy advocacy. Another key aspect is to influence policy at institutional and national levels. By showcasing the successes and failures of M-HOPES, we can advocate for policy changes that prioritize mental health in STEM graduate education. This could include advocating for funding, resource allocation, and institutional changes that support mental health initiatives in STEM.  
  5. Sustained collaboration and networking. The team aims to deepen collaborations with other universities, mental health professionals, and other partners. This network will not only share best practices and resources but also work collectively to address the mental health needs of STEM graduate students on a broader scale.  

We have talked about the team's vision for the scalability of the M-HOPES program to other graduate STEM programs. What is next for the project team in propelling that project vision?  

Our team envisions the M-HOPES program as a pioneering initiative that offers essential data from our campuses and partner institutions to contribute to a broader discussion on how graduate STEM education can effectively foster mental health and well-being. Our vision is one of a resilient, supportive, and mentally healthy STEM community that thrives. 

We envision scaling up learnings from M-HOPES to reach a larger number of students within our partnership, expanding to other fields within and beyond STEM, and building a model that can be replicated and adapted by other universities nationwide. We are preparing self-paced, online resources, and we will publish facilitator and scale-up guides to assist other institutions in implementation or adaptation.  

For additional information, please visit Mental Health Opportunities for Professional Empowerment in STEM (M-HOPES).