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When pursuing a PhD, you will face many challenges. Oftentimes these challenges don’t come from the places where you expect; specifically, many of the challenges are not about the technical work you’ll do in your PhD, but are about the soft-skills and mental aspects of the PhD process. In this workshop, we’ll go over three sources of stress you may encounter in your PhD, and especially within your first year:
- What should you expect from yourself in your first year?
- What does your advisor expect from you in your first year?
- How can you be supportive of your peers?
We will then give you tips and advice that we hope will help you answer the above questions for your personal situations.
We acknowledge that students from underrepresented minority groups (URM students) face additional challenges. While we hope to (very broadly) address some of these challenges here with concrete advice and a (non-exhaustive) list of resources, this is a diverse and deep topic that warrants its own workshop(s). We hope to run a workshop solely about challenges faced by URM PhD students next year. Lastly, we hope that this workshop provides non-URM students with a starting point for understanding issues that are faced by their URM peers.
1. What should you expect from yourself in your first year?
One key aspect for success in your PhD is knowing what is reasonable to expect of yourself at each stage of the program. Since the PhD is a sort of apprenticeship to learn to become an independent researcher, it is not reasonable for you to expect yourself to do “great research” right from the start. In fact, it is not reasonable for you to compare yourself to students who are even one year ahead in the program, since (as you will see) in a single year you will develop a lot! Having unreasonable expectations can lead to a tremendous amount of stress and make it difficult for you to enjoy the process.
You may have expectations for yourself that have been carried over from your previous stage in life, or you may adopt new expectations in the program when interacting with your cohort and lab-mates. Some of these are productive, but some can be unreasonable to place on yourself.
- If you came directly from undergrad/master’s, you may feel like it is important for you to get straight A’s.
- When interacting with more senior PhD students, you may get the feeling that its important to have many projects ongoing simultaneously.
While some of these expectations will be helpful and attainable, some will be unreasonable and may cause you unnecessary stress. In this section, we list some common (and often unreasonable) expectations incoming students might have for themselves, as well as reasonable alternatives. Since every students’ experience is different, you may relate to many of these, only some, or none at all, but we hope they will at least get you to think about what expectations you may have for yourself and whether or not they are sensible.
What you think your project is about vs. what it’s actually about
Research problems are often posed to be very specific, but they are pitched in terms of their broad implications. There can be a stark difference between the day-to-day work and the promised broader impact of the research. The day-to-day work is often more tedious and difficult, filled with lots of trial and error, dead ends and uncertainty.
As an example, a project to understand a specific type of mechanism in cancerous cells may help one day lead to a cure, but the day-to-day work involves a difficult and long process of data collection, wet-lab work, etc.
While it is good to practice pitching your project in the most impressive way possible (to prepare for future job interviews, for instance), it is good to notice how it comes across to others, and to notice how you perceive others’ projects. It is easy to feel like everyone else’s research projects are significantly more interesting than your project, and to forget that you can easily cause a peer to feel like their research is boring in comparison to your research.
Staying excited: It is unreasonable to expect your day-to-day work to be exciting in the same sort of way the broader implications are exciting. The broader implications are tailored to excite everyone – anyone can get excited about a cure for cancer, a robot that walks, etc. Excitement about the day-to-day work comes from different sources; for some it may come from a deep curiosity for the particular (and perhaps obscure) thing they are studying, for some the tasks themselves are enjoyable. Investing the time to find what excites you most about your work can help you if you ever find yourself losing momentum. Most grad students will find themselves at least several times in their PhD unexcited about their project, and that is perfectly natural. The good news though, is that excitement is a skill one can to work on! We therefore recommend that if you start noticing yourself feeling this way, talk to your advisors and lab-mates and see what works for them!
Additional things to try include,
- Switching between different research projects or between research and class-work when you feel like you are losing momentum (“productive procrastination”).
- Reminding yourself of how your research contributes to the bigger picture.
Process vs. outcomes
You may look up to more experienced graduate students in your lab / at SEAS and expect yourself to be just like them: you may expect yourself to present work clearly, make consistent progress on research every week, have interesting / insightful observations about others’ work at meetings, publish lots of papers, collaborate with lots of people, have a good work/life balance, etc. Unfortunately, PhDs take a long time to complete for a good reason: you are not expected to come in with these skills – you are expected to develop them over the course of the PhD. While comparing yourself with more experienced students may help you set goals, there is also a danger in doing that: it is easy to only notice their outcomes (exciting progress on research, insightful ideas) and forget that it took them conscious hard work over several years to get there.
In fact, if you only notice the outcomes, it may lead to an unproductive research process. Slow progress based on a methodical process can more constructively lead to publishable insights than quick attempts to jump right to an interesting result:
Example of an unproductive research process: Consider, for instance, student A, who has watched how their more senior lab-mates seemingly go from having no project to having a nearly complete paper with exciting results and broader implications. Student A tries to imitate: they try to go from nothing to everything in a single step. However, since such a research process rarely works, they end up getting negative results. They then find that they cannot process these negative results constructively, because they do not naturally lead to a hypothesis for why the experiment failed). Student A then feel inadequate in comparison to their lab-mates, and moreover does not ask for help because they feel like they would be wasting others’ time.
Example of a productive research process: In contrast, consider student B, who does not compare themselves with more senior students and thus does not expect themselves to complete the whole project in one step. Instead, they follow their advisor’s advice (and try to understand where that advice is coming from). They build a sequence of small-scale experiments, each with a clear hypothesis that can help determine the next best experiment to run. Slowly and methodically, with negative results leading constructively to new hypotheses and experiments, student B works up to a complete and publishable research project.
As a take-away, especially in your first year, we recommend focusing more on process and skills (learning background material, principled experimental design, communicating effectively), rather than on outcomes (ex. getting published). The specific set of skills you have to learn depends on your lab and advisor. For specifics, see Section 2.
Balancing research vs. classes
Coming especially directly from undergrad/master’s, you may feel compelled to treat classes like you did before – that is, you may feel that getting good grades and taking hard classes reflects your success in the program, and may further help get you a good position when you graduate. In your PhD, this is only partially true. If you’re applying to fellowships, then grades do matter, but the difficulty of the classes does not necessarily matter. Aside from that, however, the emphasis is not on grades and classes, but on research. Therefore, so long as you learn the skills and tools necessary to do your research (as per your advisor’s recommendation), we recommend you focus on learning and not on grades.
We compiled a list of tips we hope you find useful to help balance classes and research (as well as personal life):
- Work on problem-sets with classmates. In many classes, the instructors even specifically say the problem-sets are designed to require collaboration!
- Go to office hours, and come prepared with questions after having already looked at and attempted the problems.
- Try to align class projects with research – some professors let you even combine your research with the class project.
- Take a research course with your advisor (ex. CS299r in Computer Science, AM299r in Applied Math, etc.), since in some departments you can count that as a class.
- Since classes have more defined expectations and research is open ended, it’s easy to pour more time into classes than into research. You can try setting limits on how much time you spend on each class per week.
Balancing work and life
One challenging aspect of your PhD is the often-nebulous boundaries of graduate school work; between classes, research, publications, managing relationships with collaborations, etc., it always feels like there’s one more work-related thing you can do. This makes it challenging to balance work with life. Work/life balance, however, should not just be a cliche or a fantasy! It’s really important to take care of yourself throughout your PhD (yes, as important as your research). Most students have hobbies they are serious about, strong ties to their communities, a social and/or family life, etc. We can be well-rounded and complete individuals with a life outside of work (just like many of our professors).
Sometimes your advisor may offer you a professional opportunity outside of your current research (e.g. helping organize a conference, mentoring students) or may ask you if you have extra cycles to pitch in on a different project. In these situations, if you are already feeling overwhelmed by your existing commitments, it is important that you communicate that with your advisor. For example, it is very reasonable to tell your advisor that you are feeling overwhelmed by your existing commitments, and to ask them whether (a) it is possible for you to wrap up existing projects before committing to new ones, or (b) that you are happy to take on these new commitments if they are ok with you putting existing ones on the backburner.
Students from Underrepresented Minority (URM) Groups
If you are not a URM student, it may feel like that the image of a “good scientist” or a “good engineer” is aligned with your social, cultural and personal identities, but if you are a URM student, it may feel like being a “good scientist” or a “good engineer” requires you to suppress important aspects of yourself, because these concepts are often constructed in popular and academic culture in biased and exclusive terms. Furthermore, if you are from an underrepresented minority group, you may not see people like you represented in your lab, classrooms and the professionals in your field, and you may be more likely to suffer from imposter phenomenon and encounter implicit bias in your career. You are not expected to deal with these challenges on your own.
We strongly encourage you to find your community. You may not find many other people in your lab or your classroom who share in your non-professional identities and interests, but they do exist and they want to meet you too! A network of mentors and allies can help you make a place in your field where you can be yourself, help you process difficult experiences, as well as help you address the specific issues you may face in the classroom, lab or generally in grad life. We encourage you to seek out graduate student clubs, organizations or other events based on your identity or affinity, and work out your social muscles alongside your intellectual ones.
Examples of organizations include: GSAS Society of Underrepresented Students in STEM (GSUSS), Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (HGWISE), Harvard LGBTQ@GSAS Association, W.E.B. DuBois Graduate Society. See this page for a more complete list of groups focused on diversity issues and the Engage website to explore all GSAS student groups. You may find an additional list of clubs and organizations that are more undergraduate-focused but may still be of interest here. You can use these groups simply for having fun and making friends. You can also use them to find a wider, more diverse network for advice and support on research and advisor questions, picking classes and balancing coursework, housing, navigating Harvard bureaucracy, etc.
2. What does your advisor expect from you in your first year?
Your relationship with your advisor is a two-way street: on one hand, you are expected carry out lab duties and push your research project forward, and on the other, your advisor is expected to provide you with the feedback and support you need to become an independent researcher. As such, you need to make sure you’re a productive member of lab (making your advisor happy), while you need to make sure you’re getting the support you need (making you happy). Each advisor / lab will have different expectations, and it is important you communicate effectively to determine what these expectations are and how to meet these expectations, while also ensuring you are getting the help and support you need. As a rule of thumb, we recommend you to be the one to manage your relationship with your advisor – to be proactive in seeking feedback, resources, advice, etc. – and generally to err on the side of asking more questions than less. In this section, we go into more detail about several areas of conversation we recommend you to talk to your advisor about. Since each advisor / lab are unique, these may not be 100% applicable to you, but we hope that this can help get you started!
Soliciting feedback from your advisor
Some advisors give feedback regularly and some don’t, and some advisors only give feedback on certain topics and not others. As such, we recommend to periodically (every several weeks) schedule a one-on-on meeting with your advisor to solicit for feedback directly.
Some questions to ask your advisor include:
- Am I improving in the areas that I need to most?
- What skill should I focus on most in the next couple of weeks?
- How can I communicate better in group meetings?
- Are you overall happy with my performance?
- How can I be a more supportive lab-mate?
Asking for feedback will (1) help you stay focused and improve more quickly, (2) show your advisor initiative and desire to improve, and lastly, (3) it will help prevent miscommunication / never leave you uncertain about whether your advisor is happy/unhappy with you.
Since you are just starting your PhD, be ready to get some constructive (and maybe negative-sounding) feedback – it does not mean your advisor thinks you’re doomed to fail – it means your advisor is trying to help you develop as a researcher. In short, you are not expected to start out knowing everything, so you should expect to be getting constructive feedback!
Communicating about communication: Sometime it’s hard to gauge whether you’re updating your advisor too much or too little, what topics do they want to be updated on more frequently, etc. When in doubt, we encourage you to simply ask your advisor. It may seem weird/awkward at first, but from our experience, advisors appreciate straight-forward communication.
Some questions you may have include:
- How many slack messages are too many?
- If I have big-picture questions about the project before our regular meeting, should I message you about them?
- If I have technical questions about the project before our regular meeting, should we find a time to chat about those?
Asking these questions once can help put your mind at ease.
Effective communication in lab meetings
Each advisor manages their lab differently.
We compiled a list of questions we hope will be useful for you to think about in order to better tailor your communication to you advisor / group meeting style:
- What do kind of feedback do you need? (what questions do you have? where are you stuck? what is the next experiment to try?) and what do you need to tell your advisor to solicit this kind of feedback?
- What does your advisor need to hear about the project so they can help steer the project in the directions needed for their constraints (grant funding, collaboration agreements, personal interests, etc.)?
- Does your advisor remember exactly what you agreed on in the last meeting? or do they need a quick summary of the state of the project and what was agreed upon the previous meeting?
- Are there others in the meeting who do not work on your project? What kind of feedback do you need from them? What do they need from you to feel included in the conversation?
- How much time do you get to present for?
Problems in communication may results in a frustrated advisor (who may even think you don’t know what you’re doing, or that you’re not working hard!). They may also result in lack of useful feedback (and thus a frustrating / stagnant project).
Tips for effective communication. We hope that some combination of the following tips will be useful to you, whether it be for an hour-long presentation at your lab’s group presentation, or for a quick 5-minute project update:
- Ask your advisor and peers for feedback on your presentation (even if its only a quick 5-min project update). Especially given time constraints, this can help you get the most out of your advisor and lab-mates.
- Summarize where you left off last meeting (ex. what hypotheses you were thinking about). Given these hypotheses, summarize what you agreed to do prior to this meeting. Lastly, give update – make sure to synthesize the high-level conclusions (don’t just brain dump a bunch of figures and facts from your experiments). Lastly, propose a set of next steps and discuss.
- Before the end of the meeting, agree on the next steps to pursue together (that way you know exactly what your advisor expects from you and you can make sure you didn’t spent a bunch of time working on something that isn’t useful). Alternatively/additionally, after the meeting you can summarize the meeting and conclusions in email/slack.
- Find an organizational method to keep track of discussion in the meetings.
- Send out slides / document / latex in advance so folks are given the chance to delve right in. Although it may seem like a high overhead to do for a meeting, the more you do it the quicker and more natural it will become.
Getting up to speed – the fundamental skill-set
Every lab has a fundamental skill set required to start doing research, whether it be your lab’s in-house fabrication processes / lab equipment, a theoretical basis required for your research, a way of thinking and communicating clearly, etc. Since each lab is different, we recommend asking your advisor, as well as your lab-mates some questions to get you started:
These questions include,
- What is the fundamental set of skills necessary to learn to be a productive member of lab? Which of these skills is the highest priority? and how can I learn it most effectively?
- What classes do you recommend I take that would be useful for my research / to broaden my understanding of related fields?
- Are there specific related work you recommend I read for my project? What is your strategy for reading research papers?
Independence vs. dependence
Does your advisor prefer for you to be completely independent in determining which project to pick and what experiment to try next? or do they prefer for you to work on projects they select and carry out the experiments they think are best to try next? While each advisor is different, in the initial stages of your program it is more likely that your advisor will pick a project for you (or give you several options to choose from), and that most of the insights and ideas will come from them. This makes sense, since they have years of experience as researchers, and you’re just starting. As you continue in the program the balance will shift: you will become more and more independent, provide more ideas and insights, until eventually you will become more of a colleague than a student, able to propose and carry out research projects on your own.
Although each advisor is different, especially in your first year, we recommend that if they suggest an experiment for you to try, you ask enough questions to understand why they made their suggestion, and then you try it. We make this recommendation for two reasons: (1) it is important to be respectful of your advisor’s research experience – there is a good reason why they suggested the experiment, and (2) trying out their experiment and understanding it has pedagogical value – after all, you’re here to learn how to do research from them. After you try their experiment, we further recommend you synthesize the results (i.e. don’t just present some figures – what do the results imply?), propose a next step to your advisor for feedback, and reach a mutual agreement about what to actually do next. This feedback is key to learning how to more a research project forward.
Asking for help
Knowing when to ask for help, and learning to feel comfortable asking for help are both important skills. Many grad students do not feel comfortable asking their advisor or their peers for help, and while it is good to try to hash out problems on your own, it is important to know when to stop and to ask for help.
Asking “good” questions: If you are nevertheless concerned your questions are not “good” and might waste someone’s time, there are a couple things you could do to help others help you, and to show initiative: (1) be as specific as possible about what you’re confused about, (2) list things you’ve already tried and why did they not work, and (3) think why what you’re observing differs from what you expected.
Advisor vs. lab-mates – who to ask for help? In addition to knowing when and how to ask for help, it is also important to know who to ask. The actual advising you will get from your advisor vs. your lab-mates is very lab-dependent. In some of the bigger labs, for instance, the advisor mostly helps with big-picture ideas (ex. motivation, overall direction, etc.) and feedback on writing, while lab-mates help hash-out technical issues, on-boarding of new techniques. In smaller labs, sometimes the advisor is more involved with the technical details of each project. It’s always a good idea to ask your advisor and lab-mates who to ask each question!
Your lab vs. the broader SEAS community – who to ask for help? Sometime it’s helpful to get more perspectives than just your advisor’s, whether on a technical problem, a life decision, support, etc.
We encourage you to get to know John Girash and Ann Greaney-Williams. John is the Director of Graduate Education and and Ann is the Graduate Academic Program Administrator; they are invested in your experience and your well-being and are here to support you. They will work with you to resolve any problem you encounter throughout your PhD.
How to get to know more faculty?
- You can take their classes and attend their office hours.
- You can TA for them.
- You can simply ask to meet with them (or knock on their door under non-COVID circumstances and ask if they have a few minutes to chat), introduce yourself, and ask them some questions. You can, for example, ask them questions about a paper they wrote, big-picture questions, or about their experiences in different parts of their career, etc.
How to get to know more students?
- Work in teams on class homework / projects.
- Attend events organized by the SEAS Graduate Council (they are super friendly!) and/or events hosted by your department.
- Get involved in SEAS-wide initiatives (outreach, the SEAS Graduate Council, etc.).
- Meet for a couple of virtual coffee with folks from InTouch, a student-founded peer-to-peer support network.
Each lab / advisor are different, and it is good to know what is expected of you when it comes to lab logistics. Here we talk about logistics surrounding paper deadlines, camera-ready papers and vacations (though these are not the only lab logistics to ask about!). Specifically, we list some questions that might be worth thinking about (and directly asking your advisor) to make sure you know what’s expected of you.
- Which deadlines are you aiming for?
- How long before the deadline does your advisor need to see a draft?
- Does your advisor need to see the final paper submission, or do they just “ok” it when it looks reasonably close?
- What should you do if the results turn out negative? What should you do if they are positive but just barely? Do you still submit or do you wait for the next deadline?
- Does your advisor need to see the camera-ready submission? (ex. to ensure the acknowledgements, authorship, etc. are correct before submission).
- Who funds travel, lodging and meals? What is the requirements and process for reimbursements?
- How many conferences will they send you for per year? and do they expect you to go to conferences at which you are not presenting?
- Does your advisor need to approve your poster?
- Does your advisor need to approve your spotlight presentation / contributed talk?
- What is the etiquette for representing your collaborators’ work?
- What is the etiquette when discussing future work with non lab-folks? (how much is appropriate to disclose?).
- How long in advance does your advisor need to know about your vacation?
- How long is a reasonable vacation? or does it not matter so much so long as you are on-top of your lab duties?
- When is reasonable to take a vacation? (ex. Anytime? right after a deadline? to try to align it with when your advisor is away?)
Communication about Issues faced by Students from Underrepresented Minority (URM) Groups
If you are a URM student, you may find yourself needing to have a difficult conversation with your advisor about an issue specific to you as a URM student. Perhaps you’re nervous about how to broach the topic with your advisor? Maybe you’re not sure how to ask for the support that you need? We hope that in these situations, you will be able to call on your social support network, campus-wide affinity groups, professional affinity groups, etc. – your mentors and colleagues in these communities may have had similar experiences that can help inform your approach to discussing sensitive topics with your advisor.
3. How can you be supportive of your peers?
Lead with vulnerability: Many of us who are in PhD programs have been trained to lead with strengths – to portray ourselves in the way that makes us look most impressive so we can pass interviews, impress colleagues, etc. While leading strengths is a useful skill, it can also lead to isolation during grad school. PhD students are at a significantly higher risk of experiencing depression, anxiety and imposter phenomenon than the rest of the population. It is easy to slip into a dark mindset in which you feel like you’re not meeting your expectations for yourself, and in which everyone around you is successful and well-balanced. And while in Section 1, we encouraged you to set reasonable expectations for yourself based on your stage in the program; here we encourage you to think about how you can help shape your peers’ self-expectations for the better. Even in the most ordinary hallway interaction – when you’re asked “how are you?” on your way to class – your response matters! We encourage you to be as honest as you feel comfortable about your experience; if you are having a bad week, tell your friend about it – don’t just answer “I’m fine, how are you?”. If everyone contributed a real vulnerability, no one has to feel like they are the only one struggling, and everyone can realize that many of their peers are facing similar difficulties. Moreover, if you lead with a real vulnerability, your friend might reciprocate and give you a chance to be supportive. We recognize that it is a privilege to be able to lead with vulnerability, and that leading with vulnerability positions some students in a difficult position, in which they may be reinforcing negative stereotypes – as such, we emphasize again the importance of finding a supportive community that creates a space in which everyone can be themselves.
Validate: When you talk to a peer who is leading with a vulnerability, although un-intuitive, it is sometimes good to just listen and to sympathize. Offering solutions can trivialize your friends’ problems – it can make them think “if the solution is so obvious, why am I struggling? it must be because something’s wrong with me”. Asking deeper questions about their experience, how exactly they feel and why they think they feel this way can all help them better understand what they want to do. And if you’re asked for advice, then by all means say what you think!
Regularly check up on your peers: Ask your friends how they are doing, meet them for a zoom or socially distanced cup of coffee.
Support your peers from underrepresented minority (URM) groups: Stress in graduate school is near ubiquitous, but some stresses, like stereotype threat, are unique to the background and lived experiences of those who feel them. Recognizing and understanding these stresses that many URM students experience can help you be a better colleague, mentor, peer and friend. Be sensitive to the time/emotional burden that often falls disproportionately on URM students to advocate for themselves and educate their peers on social issues on top of their professional responsibilities as PhD students. A good starting place is to proactively try to understand these issues through reading and reflection. Some of your peers may encounter unsympathetic or even hateful attitudes about their identity during their PhD. If you’re a bystander, speak up – it can be really difficult or scary to speak up for oneself in the moment and extremely isolating afterward if no one else intervened. Discrimination may not take the forms of words or actions with a clear target, but rather be embedded in systems and processes that can still harm your peers based on their identities. Pay attention and speak up whenever and however you can. If you want to be a more direct part of that effort you can join the union, the graduate student council, a graduate student group or help with events or workshops like this one.
Some readings you may find useful include:
- Mentoring Underrepresented Students in STEMM: Why Do Identities Matter?
- Silent Technical Privilege
- On Technical Entitlement
- “Those invisible barriers are real”: The Progression of First-Generation Students Through Doctoral Education
- Challenging Technical Privilege: How Race and Gender Matter
- Why Are Some STEM Fields More Gender Balanced Than Others?
- “I Know I Have to Work Twice as Hard and Hope That Makes Me Good Enough”: Exploring the Stress and Strain of Black Doctoral Students in Engineering and Computing
- “Black Genius, Asian Fail”: The Detriment of Stereotype Lift and Stereotype Threat in High-Achieving Asian and Black STEM Students
- Constructing Allyship and the Persistence of Inequality
- Readings from the Harvard IACS course on Diversity, Inclusion and Leadership in Tech
In order for us to create a supportive and welcoming community, we all need to share in the burden shouldered by every member of our community – working together to understand and address the challenges facing each of us creates a better environment for everyone.
Set reasonable expectations for yourself. A PhD is a long process – no one expects you to come in knowing everything. Set healthy and reasonable expectations for yourself based on where you are in the process.
Learn what your advisor’s expectations are. It is always a good idea to be proactive, solicit feedback about your progress, communication skills, etc., and have an open discussion with your advisor about what they expect from you.
Support your peers. Regularly check on your peers, show them that just like them, you don’t have everything figured out – if we are all open and honest about our experiences, we can, as a community, help each other set healthy and reasonable expectations for ourselves. Take the time to educate yourself on challenges faced by your peers from underrepresented minority groups.
If you’re looking for additional perspectives and thoughts about the PhD process, some of us have found the following readings useful: