Competitiveness, Equity, and Mental Health in Graduate Education
Julie Posselt

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



University of Southern California

Primary Discipline

Higher Education
Today’s college students identify anxiety and depression among the top factors impairing their learning and academic performance (ACHA, 2013), and a recent Council of Graduate Schools survey found that 62% of Black and Latino graduate students report worries about their mental or physical health (Jaschik, 2014). Among the factors shaping student mental health, intense competitiveness exacerbates social comparisons and may lead students, especially from marginalized identities, to question their potential and belonging (Baldwin, 2009). These issues have implications for the future professoriate. In a sample of 5000 graduate student respondents to a survey published in Nature, the #1 reason cited for abandoning faculty career plans was a perception that academia has become too competitive (Russo, 2011).In previous studies, I examined the consequences of organizational status competition for equitable access to undergraduate and graduate education. With this project, I turn my attention to the consequences of status competition for the wellbeing of students who do enroll. I will conduct a concurrent mixed methods project that investigates the distribution of mental health risks in higher education, the roles and measurement of competitiveness and peer support in those risks, and efforts of exemplary graduate programs to balance aims of prestige and student support. Study 1 uses multiple measures of competitiveness and a diverse, national sample from the Healthy Minds Study to assess the distributions of risk for anxiety and depression across institutional and student characteristics. Study 2 is a multi-institutional comparative case study of high-diversity graduate programs, focusing on programmatic and evaluative structures that students and faculty interpret as indicative of competitiveness and support. The results have broad significance, including theoretical advancements in multiple disciplines and hypotheses suitable for experimental or quasi-experimental studies. They will offer recommendations for institutional policy and practice about what faculty can do to design inclusive, rigorous learning environments as well as what students can do to thrive amid the competition that academic performance sometimes entails.
About Julie Posselt
Julie Posselt is an Assistant Professor of higher education in the USC Rossier School of Education and a National Academy of Education/ Spencer Foundation postdoctoral research fellow. Rooted in sociological and organizational theory, her research program examines institutionalized inequalities in higher education and organizational efforts aimed at reducing racial and gender inequities and encouraging diversity. She focuses on selective sectors of higher education— graduate education, STEM fields, and elite undergraduate institutions—where faculty and administrators are negotiating longstanding practices and cultural norms to better identify talent and educate students in a changing society. Posselt is author of the book Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gatekeeping (2015, Harvard University Press), which is based on an award-winning ethnographic study of faculty judgment in 10 highly ranked doctoral programs in three universities. This research has led to partnerships with departments, graduate schools, and other associations that are re-examining graduate admissions practices, including the University of California, American Physics Society, and Council of Graduate Schools. Other research is published or forthcoming in the American Educational Research Journal, Annual Review of Sociology, Research in Higher Education, Journal of Higher Education, Teachers College Record, Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among others. She is a member of the Journal of Higher Education’s editorial review board.

Pin It on Pinterest