AWIS member Maya Gosztyla

Demystifying the Hidden Curriculum for PhD Success

May 2, 2023

by Helen Wedegaertner

When Covid-19 led to lockdowns across the country, Maya Gosztyla, a PhD student in Biomedical Sciences at the University of California San Diego, unexpectedly found herself with some time away from the lab. As she sat at home, staring at the stack of scientific papers she was supposed to read, a lightbulb went off. For a while, she had been sensing that her system (or lack thereof) for reading scientific papers had not been working for her: this was her chance to overhaul her approach.

PhD students are often held to standards that can feel impossible, and the first such requirement is that they must gain a complete understanding of their chosen field of research by reading endless scientific papers. However, as students spend countless hours poring over these documents, they find that all the figures, tables, and facts can start to blur together, making it a challenge to efficiently keep track of what they have just read. Yet, from early on, students are expected to excel at this task, without being taught the skills to do it efficiently. These overwhelming and often unspoken expectations are known as the hidden curriculum of PhD advising.

While doctoral programs offer courses about biochemistry and physics, they generally do not provide any classes on how to work efficiently as a PhD student. These nonscientific skills are often overlooked, despite the fact that they are essential building blocks for becoming a successful doctoral student. Figuring out these skills often becomes the responsibility of the student. “There’s no class on how to be a grad student,” says Gosztyla.

During the beginning of her PhD program, Gosztyla was on her own as she tried to figure out how to read the literature and how to design experiments efficiently. When she looks back, she says that much of the work she did in the beginning of her doctoral program ended up not being useful because she wasn’t using her time well. Finally she realized that she needed to approach her work differently. She says, “There were all these things that I needed to know how to do, but there wasn’t really anywhere I could look to figure out, ‘How do I learn how to do this?’”

Gosztyla’s experience—a common one among graduate students— raises a key question: who should be responsible for teaching PhD students the skills that they need to know in order to succeed? This responsibility is generally left to mentors or advisors, but not every PhD advisor prioritizes offering this guidance. Gosztyla says that these types of skills are “something you often get only from a mentor or sometimes from a parent who is a professor, but [they are not abilities that you are] really going to learn in any other way.” And so students are often left on their own to figure things out.

Without any formal training, Gosztyla spent weeks reading and researching how to make the best use of her time and effort, and she ended up developing her own system for reading scientific papers. Gosztyla’s system involves five main steps:

  1. Find papers to read;
  2. Manage these papers using an automated reference system such as Zotero;
  3. Read the papers;
  4. Organize your notes about the paper; and
  5. Take the time to re-organize when your system inevitably gets out of whack.

She found that the most difficult hurdle to overcome is just getting started with a personal system that works for you. However, as she insists, “The overall setup is by far the biggest return on investment.” To make the idea of organizing a system more accessible for other PhD students, she wrote a tutorial, offering it first as a Twitter thread and then as an article in Nature Careers. From there, the idea made waves across social media and caught the attention of science educators.

Gosztyla started hosting workshops for her lab mates and peers and found that people were excited to receive the information that she shared. She was then invited to teach a formal lecture for first-year students in her PhD program (her lecture was the top-rated one for the course). She was also recruited to give a lecture for the Path to the Professoriate Program at UC Berkley, a program that aims to demystify the hidden curriculum around becoming a professor. In addition, she has been invited to speak at conferences across the country, not just for STEM PhD students but also for health-care workers and journalists. From these beginnings, the demand for her workshops continues to grow. Clearly, people across all sectors really want to learn this information.

Gosztyla says that the growing demand for help in learning the skills necessary to succeed in a PhD program is at least in part due to a cultural change: students are becoming more comfortable with acknowledging that they have knowledge gaps.

“There needs to be more of an emphasis on teaching life skills, rather than just providing [academic] classes,” she asserts. By incorporating such skills into the formal curriculum, PhD programs can help demystify the path to finishing a doctorate and can support students by providing them with the tools they need to succeed in a PhD and beyond.

AWIS member Helen WedegaertnerHelen Wedegaertner is a PhD candidate in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program at UC San Diego. Her research focuses on identifying signaling pathways that can be exploited for cancer treatments. Outside the lab, she is slowly working on checking visits to the National Parks off her list, and she likes to attend cycling classes.


This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.