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Campus & Community

From impostors to chocolate

5 min read

January session gave GSAS students a raft of offbeat program offerings

When it comes to their January plans, most graduate students have similar items on their to-do lists: Put in time in the labs, work on the research or writing of their dissertations, and maybe catch up on sleep.

For hundreds of students in Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, however, January included more than a few items — like financial-planning seminars, classes about the history and politics of chocolate, and workshops on answering tough questions in job interviews — that fell outside the intersession box.

The events were part of the third annual January @ GSAS, a series of more than 80 classes, seminars, and workshops designed to give students an opportunity for professional development and social interaction, and a chance to explore interests that fall outside their areas of study.

For second-year public health student Allegra Gordon, who took part in the “Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food” class, the session was a valuable chance to interact with students she might otherwise never have met.

“It’s very special because I go to school across the river, so I don’t have that many opportunities to come here,” she said. “Here, in this class, I am having conversations with people on topics that are interesting to me, and that are related to what I do, but we are coming at it from so many different perspectives. It’s exciting to me. I wish we could have classes like this throughout the year.

Led by Carla Martin, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of African and African American Studies, the class explored the chocolate-making process, from how and where cacao is grown to how it is made into chocolate, as well as the continuing labor rights abuses associated with the industry.

The sessions also included an opportunity for students to taste-test a variety of the sweet stuff, from traditional candy-store chocolate to artisanal bars made by local chocolatiers.

“There is a dark side to the industry, and the farmers who are growing a lot of the cacao we eat are often in the most fragile position,” said Martin. “That understanding has definitely driven the choices I make. I now mostly eat chocolate that is fair trade, which is today largely associated with high quality.”

The classes also covered a host of professional development topics — from how to write fellowship proposals to how to answer difficult questions during job interviews — while others helped to reinforce students’ research skills, with workshops on quantitative analysis techniques and reference tools.

With as many as 300 students attending, the workshop dubbed “The Impostor Syndrome: How to Feel as Smart and Capable as Everyone Seems to Think You Are” was the largest, and helped students deal with a fear — remarkably common among high-achieving people — that they don’t measure up against their peers.

Another 100 students and postdocs attended a workshop on business applications of the Ph.D. The workshop, which focused on applications in the natural and social sciences, was run by two Harvard alumna, Karen Hladik, Ph.D. ’84, and Mia A.M. de Kuijper, M.P.A. ’83, Ph.D. ’83, who have long track records in the financial industry and in corporate leadership.

Other classes, such as the personal finance session sponsored by the Harvard University Employees Credit Union (HUECU), were focused on giving graduate students the practical skills they would need throughout life.

“My goal is to help you understand what is important to you, and what your approach to money is,” said Thomas Murphy, HUECU’s director of student services. “Understanding that is 90 percent of setting a financial plan.”

In addition to discussions of how to make and stick to a budget, the workshop included information about how to use credit and debit cards, understanding credit scores, and the importance of reviewing credit reports. It also offered students some broad guidelines for investing.

“It may be difficult to do, but these financial plans are really a plan for how to get where you want to be,” Murphy told students. “Living without a budget is like operating a car without a steering wheel. You’ll get someplace, but it’s not going to be where you want to be.”

Students also could attend professional development classes and workshops, including one led by Merce Crosas, director of product development at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science (IQSS), and former graduate students on how to create and manage online identities.

“One of the first things an employer or collaborator will do when you contact them is Google you,” Crosas said. “You want to make sure that the most relevant information about you shows up in those results.”

For the students who took part in the classes, the January term was a welcome break from their usual routines, as well as a stimulating opportunity to study subjects they might otherwise not have had the time to explore.

“If I wasn’t here, I would be in my office, working,” said Andrew Littlejohn, a first-year Ph.D. candidate studying social anthropology, during a break in the class on chocolate. “I think this is a great opportunity to do something that’s really interesting. It’s a break in one sense, but it isn’t a break where you just veg out in front of the TV. It’s a break where you learn something.”