Professor Spotlight: Bryan Cochran

Psychology professor Bryan Cochran returns to Confluence to pick up our series on the faculty educational program, M-HOPES: Mental Health Opportunities for Professional Empowerment in STEM. Listen back to episode 90 to get the lay of the land. And then tune in here for specifics about what kinds of mental health struggles grad students are experiencing and who is most likely to be impacted, as well as tips for faculty on how to validate and guide those students.

Story Transcript

Bryan Cochran: We often forget how important we are in the lives of our students. Um, they may be planning all week long for a meeting that they have with us on Friday and if we cancel that, that really derails things for them. And of course it happens and we have to accommodate that. But, um, I've also, I tried something different over the past few years with one of my graduate students, which has turned out to be really interesting.

Um, when we aren't working like face to face right in front of a computer and we want to be able to have some time to kind of talk about general research ideas or how things are going in graduate school, um, I'll often go for a walk. If it's decent outside, we'll kind of use that time that's set aside. It's a great amount of time to kind of be outside, cover a little bit of what it is that we want to talk about, um, and still honor that time that I have with my grad student. One of my, um, grad students joked and he said he's taking his advisor out for a walk, which, you know, that's okay. It diminishes hierarchy. I laughed at that. It's all good.

Ashby Kinch: You just heard the voice of Bryan Cochran, professor in UM’s Psychology Department, talking about how he maintains relationships with his mentees during periods when their work together is less direct. The snippet is part of a training Bryan developed with his colleagues Holly Schleicher—with whom we talked in Episode 90—and Annie Belcourt, featured in episode 92.  

I’m Ashby Kinch, Dean of the Graduate School, and institutional PI on the NSF collaborative grant that funded their work: Mental Health Opportunities for Professional Empowerment in STEM. That’s a mouthful—so we call it M-HOPES, which has funded work in support of graduate student mental health and well-being. 

In this episode, you’ll hear more snippets from the training, and also a conversation with Bryan as we talk about the values that underpin his work. Those values include the importance of validation, the centrality of mentorship in the graduate student experience, and the ways to cut through the negative impacts of imposter syndrome. We also spoke with Bryan for Confluence Episode 86, and you should listen to that to get a fuller picture of Bryan’s research and career: the link is in the show notes.  

For listeners who want to learn more, the show notes also provide resources to explore, including an online course, developed by the expert trainers in this series. We encourage faculty across UM and beyond to register for and complete that course, “Mentoring for Mental Health.”  

We hope this episode inspires you to play a positive role in building a community of care, wherever you are on your journey. 

Welcome to Confluence, where the river is always with us.  

Ashby Kinch: So welcome to Confluence, Bryan.

Bryan Cochran: Thanks.

Ashby Kinch: You, Annie Belcourt and Holly Schleicher as a team, have built out this training, Nurture New STEM Scholars: Mentor your Graduate Students for Success and Wellbeing. Talk about your, your motivation. Why, do you wanna do this work? And, and, you know, where does it come from in your experience and what do you want to accomplish personally?

Bryan Cochran: Yeah. So I’ve thought a lot about the mentorship, um, both that I received as a graduate student and that I provide as a mentor, currently. Um, and I think this has been one of the really important developments of me as a professional over the past couple of decades, which is figuring out what are the things that I can do to provide the best space possible for graduate students to thrive and to become whatever it is that they want to be in terms of their, the next phase of their career?

Um, so I'm very motivated by that. I'm also really aware that, um, what we're talking about at the graduate student level is happening at the undergraduate level as well. Which is the recognition that mental health is such an important component of someone's undergraduate or graduate school experience and that, um, you can't really separate, you know, the effects of the pandemic or the effects of anxiety and depression from how a student is doing academically speaking. So it ha--it happens at all levels. Um, I think historically we've been reluctant as mentors to try to address things that feel like they're personal for our students. So, um, talking with a student about ways that their health might be impacting their progress toward a dissertation or thesis, um, is a very daunting thing for many people, and I realize I'm trained as a, a clinician, so it's not as daunting for me, right?

Ashby Kinch: Right. You do it every day. But maybe a STEM faculty member, they literally might never have had that conversation.

Bryan Cochran: Absolutely.

Ashby Kinch: And they're coming to a training where we're trying to say, “Well, it's okay.” You know, it's okay to ask that question and, and be ready for a discussion.

Bryan Cochran (in workshop):

So this idea of like entering a conversation can be really daunting. There's a few principles that are really helpful to keep in mind. First of all, know that there's like no one magical way to ask people about their health concerns, right? It varies from person to person. It hopefully matches your individual style.

So think about like what works for you, what works for your relationship that you have with your students. Um, but a few principles that are very helpful are one, open ended questions, asking something that kind of opens up a door as opposed to, can I do this for you or can I do that? So you might say things like, tell me about what's been going on for the past few weeks for you, or tell me a little bit more about that.

Bryan Cochran: Yeah. And the message is: you know, we don't expect that people are, um, turning into clinicians on the basis of, um, receiving a couple of workshops of support, in terms of trying to talk with their graduate students about their health concerns. But more that they feel more comfortable, um, connecting them to services or initiating a conversation that could be helpful to them while also recognizing that their graduate students are working in a really complex world that has a lot of stressors that might be different from the ones that they faced when they were in graduate school. Um, the pressures are incredibly intense in terms of academia. Um, certainly there's a lot of kind of world-related factors that are going on that disproportionately affect students of color disproportionately affect LBTIQ students and so forth. So--

Ashby Kinch: And I think some of the research is disproportionately STEM students.

Bryan Cochran: Absolutely

Ashby Kinch: Suicidality, depression are, are known to be higher in that graduate student population.

Bryan Cochran: Right. And, and, you know, having support while you're in graduate school is such an important component of being able to successfully complete your program. Um, students who don't feel supported, it's like the school belonging is parallel for youth that we were talking about. Um, if you don't feel that you belong in graduate school, um, what is it that motivates you to complete your program and how is it that you can maintain that motivation over many times several years? Um, and when the stakes are high, when things are really difficult, when you're constantly building new skills, it can be extremely difficult.

Ashby Kinch: Yeah. And so, and so we, I think it'd be, you know, useful to kind of parse a few key concepts we're, we're talking about, um, in general in this project.

You know, one is holistic mentoring. And you're kind of speaking to that point that, um, our mentors need to be more comfortable thinking about the entire human. Um, and, and that has a role too in, um, in lowering the stigma around disclosing--and that's, that's one of the things we're specifically looking at--is what are the stigmas for disclosure and how can we meet that by training faculty to kind of lower that barrier?

And what, what I found personally interesting about this is when you start talking to faculty about this and give them, faculty-to-faculty, an opportunity to talk, they say the same things about their own experience. So what we're talking about is a generational shift maybe and a cultural shift in which we just, uh, repressed that stuff. We didn't talk about it, we kept it inside, but didn't mean we didn't experience it, didn't mean we didn't experience imposter syndrome, didn't mean we didn't have mental health problems. Um, so it's opening up that door to kind of say, you know, from your own personal experience, you know this is true. So what can you do? So that, that's the kind of holistic model and the destigmatizing component of that.

Imposter syndrome. Do you wanna speak to that a little bit? I mean, that's, it's much in the news lately. There's been, uh, a recent New Yorker article about it. The two researchers who coined the term said, “We never meant it to be called a syndrome. It should be called a phenomenon.” And so, and there are some internal debates about the, the language because, um, because, you know, aside from just academic bickering, right, it is important to kind of distinguish between the psychological experience and some notion of a kind of, uh, diagnosable syndrome, right? That, that's not really what we're talking about there.

Bryan Cochran: I don't think of it as a DSM diagnosis or anything like that. Um, but imposter experiences, however we want to discuss it, um, I think they're heightened whenever we're doing something new. Um, so if you're, you know, for the first time seeing a client for providing therapeutic services for them, imposter syndrome is really, really, um, common for that.

So people feel like: “Who am I to provide services to this person?” You know, often they're reflecting on things like, “I'm a 23-year-old clinician in training myself and someone's coming to me with their difficulties.” So it comes up in clinical work, it comes up in research. Um, it comes up whenever we're doing  where we don't necessarily feel like we're part of it.

So, um, the idea of being able to generate knowledge that's gonna be beneficial within your field brings imposter experiences for people pretty significantly as well, because they often think, “Who am I to be generating this knowledge?” Um, and I think that that is just really even more heightened for people who may have been historically shut out of the system. Right? So--

Ashby Kinch: And the research has kind of stressed that it started by focusing on women who are in either professional contexts or research contacts, uh, universities as well. Some of the pushback has actually come from the diverse, uh, community of scholars who are saying, “That's not my problem. My problem is I do know what I'm talking about and no one listens to me.”

Which is, it's, it's interesting. The phenomenon are related, but they're obverse. It's, it's in some ways the same kind of cultural bias system, but the experience is, you know, inverse or obverse from the other.

Bryan Cochran: Sure. They're independent dimensions, right? They're orthogonal. So, um, it's possible that someone might also experience, um, imposter experiences, um, while at the same time recognizing that they do have knowledge that the people who they're trying to communicate to don't have.

Ashby Kinch: Don’t have, and aren't respecting.

Bryan Cochran: Exactly.

Ashby Kinch: Yeah. Yeah. And so I think to me, whether, you know, parsing the terms or whatever is, is less important than a discussion that goes around it. What are the values? What are you doing at the faculty mentor level, at the program level, and at the school level, to cultivate that sense of inclusion?

Um, you know, of course these are exclusive programs. But once they're in, what you're telling 'em is: “You're, you're ready. You know, we, we've identified your portfolio. We, we think you're ready.”

And, and that's all the, the competitive programs we have on campus, right?

Bryan Cochran: You're, you're basically saying what I say on the first day of graduate school to our students who come here. It's, it's actually a real wonderful privilege for me to be able to do that as a director of clinical training for our program. To say something like: “We had 200 applicants. There were six of you who were admitted, and you're here. We, we already believe in you.” You know, and, and now it's about how can we provide the right environment to help nurture your experiences and your training so that you can develop your full potential as a future psychologist?

Ashby Kinch: And, and I, it's, it, I, I think a number of folks do that. I don't know if all of them do. And that's, I think what the culture change that we need to make in our, in our communities is, is to make sure we voice those things to our students and they hear that affirmation that they do belong. Right? And so we can kind of cut into some of those, um, those issues by conversation and just making that a, part of how we do our business, rather than some extra thing. And, and I think one of the things we talk about on the grant is, um, mental health and wellness, wellbeing is your resource. It's what makes you who you are. It's not a thing you do on the side. Right? It's not something that you, I don't have time for my mental health and wellness to go over here. It's, it's what allows you to do your work. Um, and so you can't neglect it.

Bryan Cochran: Absolutely. I couldn't agree with you more. Thinking of it as that the work of mentorship is: It's not a side project to help do holistic mentoring or to nurture your students wellbeing. Um, that's part of the process.

Ashby Kinch: It's at the core. And you know, so in your presentations you talk about, um, you know, the health risk factors and, um, you've already kind of teed this up too by talking about in your research about protective factors.

You know, in your work, in the workshop, one of the first things you do is, you know, give a large context. Actually, I love rhetorically. I don't even know how intentional this was, but there's sort of this four Cs, there's, um, context and connection, and then a separate one, which is consistency and communication.

Um, but so we're talking about, um, with risk factors, we're talking about context. And we're talking about this broader mental health context. One of the things that the research has identified, um, for graduate students as, as major risk factors, right? Time pressures, high stakes evaluations, the sense of being dislocated or relocated to a new environment and having to adjust to that. A lot of our graduate students are from out of state or from another country. Um, a sense of kind of raised expectations from their undergraduate education. Um, a sense that if you're in a small cohort that maybe, uh, you don't have the, the support that you need, um, that you maybe don't find your identity as easily within that cohort cause it's so small. You may be, for example, from a race or a gender identity that--you're the only one, right? And so you feel isolated. Um, and then, and then this idea that your relationship with your mentor is this make-or-break thing, this very high stakes thing. So those are kind of on the risk side.

Bryan Cochran (in workshop):

So if we look at, um, different categories, and, um, this is not comprehensive demographic data with regard to mental health conditions, but this is overall in general from SAMHSA, and that's the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration, um, in the past year, did people have any mental illness among people, um, among U.S. adults? Um, you would notice just a few different things. So first of all, it's slightly more likely that people who identify as female, in comparison to people who identify as male, will experience a mental health condition. What might be missing is clearly missing from this is other gender identities.

So people who identify as trans, transgender, transmasculine, gender expansive, non binary, are actually at even greater or more elevated rates of um, different mental health conditions. And that is clearly related to experiences of victimization and discrimination that people might experience on the basis of their actual or perceived gender identity.

Looking at age, so this is, um, falling right in line with, um, thinking about mentoring graduate students. Of course, they have quite an age range, but many of them are kind of in the mid to late 20s, um, where there is sort of a peak of different mental health conditions that people might experience. And then if we look at other health disparities, um, certainly people who, um, and this is interesting, this is people who endorse two or more different, um, racial or ethnic identity categories.

So people who might have a multiple cultural backgrounds with which they identify tend to be at higher rates of psychological distress in comparison to other folks.

Ashby Kinch: What's on the protective side? In other words, the, the whole workshop is about building those protective factors and seeing the mentor as the vehicle for doing that.

Bryan Cochran: Mm-hmm. I think on the protective side, we certainly have, um, the idea of belongingness, which can be fostered at a number of different levels. So, um, the mentor, the mentor has a really great role of being able to communicate that they value their graduate student, they value the work that they're doing and that they belong in that research lab and at the University of Montana. I think that's extremely helpful.

The cohort has a role in that, as well. Um, so being able to help the person to, for lack of a better term, become acculturated to what it's like to be a graduate student. Um, advanced graduate students often share a lot of tips and insights with, um, beginning graduate students that can be really helpful as they're going through the process.

Ashby Kinch: Is that something we should be doing more with kind of cultivating that internal program-level? Structuring it out a little bit?

Bryan Cochran: Yeah, we've tried it in our program by assigning a formal mentor, a student mentor to the each incoming graduate student. Um, and I think that it has generally good results, but those relationships kind of happen naturally in our program. So we kind of force it, but it probably would happen even if we didn't. Um, in programs where it doesn't seem to be happening naturally, I think that could be really beneficial. Or smaller programs, where there's not as many, um, advanced graduate students to help mentor the newer graduate students.

Um, I think that other foundations are just kind of a approach towards wellbeing that, um, you know, includes work-life balance. I think we are at a situated at an amazing, beautiful place that people select to come here, not only for the academic reputation and rigor, but also because they know that they'll have incredible opportunities to be outdoors, to enjoy the things that they like doing. Um, Nurturing that with our graduate students and also modeling that we do that I think is extremely important.

Um, you know, as a graduate student looking at mentors who are working 80 hours a week and thinking like, “I couldn't do this for the rest of my life,” um, became a very daunting aspect of thinking about academia for me. Yeah. So I like to model a lifestyle that I hope is approachable and would be one that my graduate students would want that.

Ashby Kinch: And there's kind of a negative, uh, paradigm there where, where faculty sometimes brag a little about how hard they're working and that, you know, if you dig into that too far, you're kind of creating this alienating, you know, uh, structure. Whether you're making the graduate student think that they have to, you know, abandon their entire life to do this thing.

Bryan Cochran: Right. And I've noticed that of course, too. I mean, I, we all have colleagues who talk about how busy they are and, and that sort of becomes the academic mantra of like: “No, I'm busier than you.” Or: “You wouldn't believe how busy I am.” Um, and to me, what I think that that reflects is, um, those faculty members are looking for some sort of validation themselves, right? I mean, they, yes, they are working extremely hard. There's no doubt that all of us are working really hard in academia and that the pay is not commensurate with the amount that we work. Um, and at the same time, maybe there's not enough validation that people are receiving, um, in their department or, um, in their college. There are ways that, um, that could be seen as a request for, um, validation that is not being received.

Ashby Kinch: Yeah. That's great. I think that's really important. And, and I think the project, one of the things that's really brought home for me is how multi-leveled this work has to be. That you're talking about, you know, graduate students play a really important role in mentoring undergraduates, you know, on our campus in particular, they're maybe overseeing a lab. Um, and then, you know, junior faculty are needing some of that mentor work from a senior faculty.

And so we're really talking about tools and techniques that allow us to think across that spectrum. And then to think about what's unique at each level that that needs a particular. And I think mentor relationships are, are crucial to undergraduate level, but they're different at the graduate level. It's, it's more intense, it's more sustained. And, and there are higher stakes in terms of, you know, everyone's professional growth. And one of the, the risk factors, I think that's unique to STEM is, um, and I've heard this from a lot of STEM faculty, is, um, the pressure to publish, connected to the pressure to get grants and to deliver on those grants. Well, the graduate students are the ones doing it, right? And so that creates a friction point that has to be kind of navigated.

Bryan Cochran: Absolutely. And I think of the way that a mentor can help a graduate student to navigate this situation. And I'm gonna use this silly metaphor, I hope you'll be okay with that. Um, I think of the work that I do as a mentor sometimes as being like a tour guide. Because you have a graduate student who's visiting a place that feels new to them. The rules and sort of the evaluation criteria are different from what they've experienced before. They may not know the different landmines that exist in academia. They may not know the language. Um, people use all sorts of acronyms that seem out of reach. Um, and I think of my role as a mentor instead of, you know, throwing them into this place and seeing how are they gonna do while they're there, is to help them to navigate it. And to say: “Here are the different options of things that you can do. This has these pros and these. It also has these drawbacks. And if you allocate your time this way, um, these are the things for you to consider..”

And I think that that approach feels very non-hierarchical. It feels a lot like coming alongside and talking to student--

Ashby Kinch: It’s collaboration. And you're, and you're, you're opening up possibilities, not kind of, you know, cookie cuttering them into your system.

Bryan Cochran: Exactly.

Ashby Kinch: Yeah, that sounds, that sounds fantastic. Well, I think, you know, um, as we bring our conversation, our internal conversation and the M-HOPES project to a, a kind of a listening audience, what I'm also trying to get you to talk about is like, what's been revealing for you and delivering the workshops? Have, have you personally kind of gone through a growth process, just thinking about how to deliver the content? Have you learned from the faculty participants, um, you know, any insights in this area?

Bryan Cochran: Yeah, so here in year two of the workshops, and we're kind of midway through, or we've done two out of the three workshops for this, um, this particular semester. Um, I'm growing a lot from working alongside amazing colleagues. Um, so Holly Schleicher and Annie Belcourt are two of the most wonderful people to be able to deliver this content with and to kind of work on developing the workshops. So that has been a lot of fun. Um, and they have different perspectives from mine on a number of different issues and that's extremely helpful.

Um, I'm learning a lot from the faculty and I was just reflecting on this last night cuz we had one of the workshops yesterday afternoon. Um, I get so immersed in the language of psychology all the time, and I'm constantly thinking about, um, wellbeing and the things that we do to enhance our wellbeing. I'm constantly thinking about, um, structural things in my life and in other people's lives, including my clients that could help remove obstacles for them. Um, but rarely do faculty have time to sit down and talk about these unless that's part of their field.

So what's been really fun for me is to realize. There are a lot of things that are new to people as part of these workshops that I've thought about a lot. Um, but I've just become so immersed in it that I don't think how it might be novel for someone else. So, um, having conversations with people after the workshops and they're telling me, “Hey, I tried that last week,” or, you know, “You gave me this idea about how to work with this particular issue with a student. And it worked,” or something along those lines is really gratifying. And it's been really fun.

Ashby Kinch: Yeah. It's so valuable that y'all are opening that space too, for the, for the faculty themselves to bring those problems to the table and talk about 'em, because that is, you know, they're, they'll have pressing needs, um, because something is burning, uh, you know, in their mind in a particular relationship. Or because they've seen a pattern, you know, that, that they've, and they just haven't had the chance to work it out with people like yourself who are experts. But then the flip side is that, um, you're giving them space to kind of experiment with that. And one of, one of the, um, tools you're using in these workshops is these kind of play acting moments. Role plays. Yeah. These role plays. And I think that's so valuable cuz now they're having to put themselves in that communication position from the other side. And think empathetically about each, just even generating the language, forces them to kind of get out of whatever paradigm they're in.

Bryan Cochran: Mm-hmm. And I think what can happen in mentoring relationships is that we often get entrenched in the way that we've done it or the way that we've learned how to be a mentor. Um, and what can happen is the, the dynamic between mentor and mentee can go awry pretty significantly, pretty early on. Um, and then people get more and more entrenched in those perspectives. So then the relationship just gets more and more strained over time.

Um, whereas my view is that if you have a holistic mentoring perspective and you're working alongside your graduate student and you're trying to talk about and address these different things that might help you to be connected to one another as opposed to more distant, um, it ultimately is gonna be a time saver for the faculty member as well as um, it's just going to save a lot of emotional strain and, and difficulties that otherwise might be part of the mentor-mentee relationship on both ends.

Ashby Kinch: Yeah. And I think it's, so that's so important to the, the, the pragmatism of what y'all have done with the workshop. One of the titles of one of the workshops is, “I don't have time for this workshop.” That's one of the things I love about this training. It's very practical. You’re encouraging people to really think at a fine grain level, at the level they work. You know, it's not, you're not asking them to take on some big clinical paradigm. You're, you're engaging with them, right where they do their work.

Bryan Cochran: Yeah. And that's what I hope is gonna keep people connected throughout the workshop series. Because our hope is that it's not just coming to one workshop and, you know, kind of taking those skills and leaving. Um, but they do build. And they build on the theme of how do you increasingly have, um, conversations with your graduate students that reflect this holistic mentoring process.

Ashby Kinch: Yeah, yeah. And so one of our long-term goals will be to try to kind of create some group experiences that continue to work forward and create cohorts that can communicate with one another in, in an ongoing way and shape departmental cultures. You know, take some of this work back to the program level and shape that culture in a, in a new way. Not necessarily a kind of, you know, right face, but just, you know, making some, um, some small adjustments in the culture as they go along.

Bryan Cochran: Mm-hmm.

Ashby Kinch: Thank you so much for joining us on Confluence, Bryan.

Bryan Cochran: Thank you, Ashby. It’s been my pleasure.