Psychology Professor Serena Chen shares her passion in researching self-compassion and guiding her students

March 19, 2024

UC Berkeley Psychology Professor and former Department Chair Serena Chen began her almost three decades journey in academia after receiving her Ph.D. in social psychology from New York University. Throughout her long tenure at Berkeley Social Sciences, which began in 2000, Professor Chen has taught, mentored and inspired countless undergraduate and graduate students. In addition to shaping the lives of her students, Chen has produced new knowledge in the field of self-compassion and authenticity. She is also a Fellow of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, the American Psychological Association and the Association of Psychological Science. 

Professor Chen spoke to Berkeley Social Sciences recently about her career and its impact. Her interview is edited for clarity.

Please tell us about your background and path to UC Berkeley
Serena Chen: I had a fairly straight path to Berkeley. I grew up mostly in the New Jersey/NYC metro area. I went to Cornell University as an undergraduate and then NYU for my Ph.D. in social psychology. I went straight from there to my first tenure-track job at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I stayed there 3.5 years before UC Berkeley beckoned and I came out here, starting my position in 2000. 

I will say, though, that although my path looks pretty straight, it took me longer than one might think to truly feel as if academia was the right path for me. I did not grow up knowing about academia, much less what a Ph.D. was. I joke at times that my family still doesn't know what I do -- even though I've been a professor for nearly 27 years now! So, in a lot of ways, I feel lucky that I grew into the career I ended up in, and am now grateful for everyday. 

What do you like most about working at UC Berkeley?
Serena Chen: I would say it's a tie between teaching and learning from students (especially ones from non-traditional and marginalized backgrounds), and the excitement and energy of intellectual ideas and exchanges about them with my colleagues. 

Tell us more about your students
Serena Chen: Time and again, over my 24 years here at Cal, I have been humbled and inspired by the stories of so many of my students, especially undergraduates. I love the diversity of the student body here at Cal in terms of life and background experiences, yes — but also the hardships, triumphs and resilience I have heard about and witnessed firsthand. In terms of my graduate students over the years, I have had the privilege of mentoring and watching them grow personally and professionally throughout their time at Cal. Then, once they leave the nest, so to speak, I get to hear about all of their accomplishments in their careers and personal lives — often with amazement and pride, all the while continuing to offer guidance or simply cheerlead from the sidelines. 

How do you mentor them?
Serena Chen: I would say that I have a pretty hands-on approach to mentoring, though I have learned over the years to tailor my mentoring style to each student so that we find a happy medium. For me, having students feel a sense of ownership in the research we are working on together is of the utmost importance. Also important is striking a good balance between "tough love" and empathy and understanding when I give feedback. 

Although the "default" is for graduate students to come into our Ph.D. program with the end goal of an academic career, I have long been supportive of students' varied career path interests. It takes time and experience to figure out if a career in academia is the right path. Sometimes students discover it's not, and that's OK. There are many ways to contribute to the world and to find a sense of meaning in what one does. 

Tell us more about your research
Serena Chen: Broadly speaking, I have 2 research areas:

(1) My primary one focuses on the intersection of the self, identity and close relationships. In this broad space, I ask questions like how do our relationships shape who we are, how we define and evaluate ourselves? How do people feel like their true selves in their relationships? What happens when they don't? What does being authentic entail? How can one be authentic and yet experience self change and growth? How do we encourage self-compassion? What are the consequences of self-compassion for ourselves and for our relationships? 

(2) A close second area of research focuses on how social power, social class, inequality and hierarchy influence who we are, how we see ourselves, and our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. In this general area, I've been interested in questions like how does our social class shape the selves we envision for the future? How does inequality influence our social relations? How does one's position in a hierarchy influence their experience and definition of the self? How does power influence our ability to cope with hardships, setbacks and difficult emotions?

What kind of impact has your research made?
Serena Chen: I'd say most of the impact of my research has been in motivating new research--so, staying within academic circles. But some of my work — particularly on self-compassion and authenticity — has had a broader impact. In particular, I speak about both when I teach in executive leadership programs, consult with researchers and marketing people in the beauty and fashion industry, and do workshops for various community settings/organizations. I talk about what self-compassion is, its benefits, and how we can cultivate it. On authenticity, I talk about what it is and isn't, as well as how important it can be to strive for it not only for oneself but for others around you. 

What are your proudest accomplishments at UC Berkeley?
Serena Chen: I would say the top three are: 
(1) receiving the Social Sciences Distinguished Teaching Award
(2) receiving the Association for Psychological Science's Mentoring Award
(3) navigating my department as Chair through the pandemic, recent strike, and exodus of a significant number of our faculty to a new Neuroscience Department