Doctoral Dissertations

Orcid ID

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Major Professor

Elisabeth Ellen Schussler

Committee Members

Randall Small, Kimberly Sheldon, Erin Hardin


Graduate students report increasing levels of anxiety and depression compared to the general public, negatively impacting their overall mental health and degree attainment in graduate programs. Yet we are only beginning to understand what contributes to graduate student anxiety. Biology Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) in particular occupy an “ambiguous niche” in academia with simultaneous roles as teachers, researchers, students, and employees. Balancing these roles can contribute to anxieties, particularly in regard to teaching and research responsibilities. My dissertation investigated Biology GTA anxieties related to teaching and research roles, how these anxieties change over time, how GTAs cope with these emotions, and how career aspirations relate to these anxieties. I surveyed (n=89) and interviewed (n=23) Biology GTAs at a research-intensive university twice over one year. Results revealed that a GTA’s teaching self-efficacy is an important predictor of teaching anxiety, with greater self-efficacy related to decreased anxiety. Interviews revealed that five factors were associated with teaching and research anxieties, but in different proportions for each role. Anxiety-related to a lack of self-efficacy was most common for research roles; while anxiety related to impact on others (e.g. students) was more prevalent in teaching roles. Anxieties related to role tensions or time constraints between teaching and research also arose, though GTAs with academic career aspirations expressed these anxieties less compared to GTAs with non-academic career goals. Lastly, when examining how GTAs coped with teaching and research anxieties, GTAs overall tended to use adaptive coping strategies, despite differences between roles. Problem solving and information seeking were used in both teaching and research contexts, but support seeking strategies were used most often in research. Over time, the use of these adaptive coping strategies declined among GTAs, however, maladaptive strategies did not notably increase. This may indicate a stabilization of coping strategies over time. Given the important roles that GTAs play as instructors in introductory Biology and in the production of research at research-intensive institutions, it is important to understand how GTAs are experiencing anxieties related to teaching and research roles in order to better support their mental health through institutional resources to manage such stressors.


Chapters 1 and 2 of this dissertation are currently submitted and under review for publication.

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