We, as a society, hold beliefs about science that may be romanticized and inaccurate. These ideas can be exclusionary in the way we define a typical scientist and how science is done. These notions about science can also become obstacles for us as a community to perform rigorous, inclusive and useful science, impede us individually in our professional growth, by contributing to unrealistic self-expectations (and therefore poor mental health), and hinder our ability to build supportive academic communities. We hope that these materials will provide you with a starting point to build a more accurate conception of science.

Skill Building

In addition to developing technical skills, there are many equally important soft-skills you will learn as a PhD student – skills like reading research papers, communicating at group meetings, writing research papers and rebuttals, and time management. Although you will likely have worked on similar skills throughout your academic and professional life so far, you may find that adapting the skills you already have to fit the needs of your PhD program is challenging. The resources below will help you get started. We hope that in going through them, you can shift your focus from outcome to process: you’re a PhD student and here to learn – it wouldn’t make sense if you already knew how to do everything!

Different Professional Paths

While a career in academia may be fulfilling (e.g. What is it like to be a professor in computer science?), when pursuing your PhD, you will be surrounded by academics, and you may feel pressure to pursue a similar career path. There are of course many career options that are fulfilling, whether in academia, industry, government, or NGOs, and many different ways to use the skills you develop in your PhD (even in jobs that do not list “PhD” as a qualification). We list some articles here that share perspectives you may hear less frequently from your mentors in hope to help you understand different professional paths:

Power Dynamics and Research in Context

Who decides which questions are interesting, what research is important and what research gets funded? How does this bias the scientific community towards specific types of discourse, and how does this ultimately affect our societal values and community? It is important to be cognizant of what forces shape our scientific communities, to be skeptical of and to challenge pre-existing values to ensure our research does not create or exacerbate disparities in our society. We list some papers below that illustrate these types of power dynamics in scientific communities as a starting point for you to engage with these issues.

Understanding Research in Societal Contexts

As scientists and engineers we might be tempted to think of the technology we design, along with the intended end-users, as a closed system. This is misleading because our research is embedded in a complex human system (i.e. society) where human values and history shape what research questions we consider interesting and important, and where our intended end-users are one actor in a web of stake-holders that may come in contact with or will be affected by our technology. In order to understand where our research questions come from and gauge the true down-stream effects of our reasearch output, we have to broaden our impact analysis to consider historical, cultural, political and social contexts.

Academic Language and Currency

What is academic culture (language, customs, and values)? Who does this culture exclude and undervalue? And who does it include and award credit and recognition? As members of the academic and scientific communities, it is important for us to think about these questions, and examine our notions of meritocracy and individual excellence. Below are some resources to help you get started thinking about these issues.

Problems with Publishing

Publications and citations serve as a form of currency in academic communities. As such, as academics, we often entangle our sense of self-worth with our publishing record. The publishing and peer-review processes are far from perfect, and we believe that understanding their pitfalls will help you disentangle your sense of self-worth, from the quality of the work you produce, and from the peer-reviews and publishing record of your research (whether good or bad).

Mental Health in Academia

Even with a supportive advisor and community, the PhD process is intellectually and emotionally challenging; it often forces us to re-examine our closely-held beliefs and can challenge our sense of identity. And while the process may lead to growth, it may also lead to struggle. We want to normalize the struggles that PhD students face, as well as the practice of openly discussing these struggles and seeking help. We hope that some of these resources can help with understanding mental health challenges in academia.

We additionally encourage you to familiar yourself with Harvard’s mental health resources, and consider finding a support network by affinity or interest, or attending / joining a peer-to-peer support group on campus (e.g. InTouch).