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Off Course

Off Course captures the concerns student researchers may face in their academic careers and highlights the effects of poor mentoring, imposter syndrome, and unwanted sexual attention. The vignette was developed based on input from students, postdoctoral scholars, faculty, and staff for the Caltech's 2018 Conference on Mentoring Undergraduate Researchers sponsored by the Office of Student-Faculty Programs.

Research plays a powerful role in science and engineering education. For undergraduates, research experiences are considered a high-impact educational practice. Students who participate in research have higher retention rates, better graduation rates, and are more likely to go on to graduate school; this impact is even more so for those underrepresented in STEM fields [National Academies report on undergraduate research]. For graduate students and postdocs, the research environment is critical to their development and success but often it depends on a hierarchical structure in which a single principal investigator controls the funding, the direction of the research, as well as recommendations and future job prospects.

Sexual harassment can negatively affect an individual's professional, emotional, and physical health, and can result in them withdrawing from their work, changing their academic fields, or leaving their jobs. How can we reduce the incidences of harassment in a research or academic environment? A recent report indicates that we need to change the environment and support individuals who are targets of the harassing behavior. As found in Off Course, friends may struggle to provide assistance. As you observe the vignette think about how you would advise, help, or impact the situation.

Start a Dialogue

  • What challenges do you see for these early-career researchers?
  • If you were their friends, what advice would you offer each student?
  • If you were their faculty advisor, what advice would you offer each student?
  • How do you maintain boundaries between work and social activities?
  • Targets of harassment typically do not report the harassment to anyone in a position of authority and many do not tell anyone about the conduct. How could you encourage the student in the vignette to seek help and/or to report?
  • What steps can be taken to help encourage reporting and support group members in your own university or workplace?


Download available: pdf | docx

Off Course Team Members

Sagar Brahmbatt, 2018 graduate from Washington University in Saint Louis in film and media studies and in biomedical physics
Mohar Chatterjee, Caltech undergraduate student in mechanical engineering and in business, economics and management
Alexandra Stutt, Caltech undergraduate student in mechanical engineering