Post-doc self-organizing [Ask AstroBetter]

by Jane on May 11, 2011

“Could someone please summarize activities the postdocs have in your own institute, and ask the community to share their own initiatives?”

Jane:  Sure!  At my institution, the postdocs run an astro-postdoc email list, a semi-regular lunch outing, and a new career seminar with speakers ranging from the deputy administrator of NASA to humble junior faculty types like me.  They also run a larger email-list for postdocs across our institution.  There’s a hunger for more such initiatives; I don’t know how it will shake out yet.

Kelle:  At Caltech, the postdocs are the primary force behind astro-ph discussion. The moderator is supposed to bring an article to get things going; that duty rotates amongst ~5 different postdocs.  While this isn’t a “postdoc-only” activity, it gives the postdocs a sense of belonging and contributing to the dept. community.  Also, Caltech has an active and vibrant campus-wide postdoc association that organizes Social and Career activities in addition to advocacy.  Not every campus is going to be able to sustain such an organization, but I would consider this one to be a model to consider following…just checking out their activities archive could be inspirational.

Jane:  Caltech also has a great “Women Mentoring Women” program, in which postdocs mentor graduate students.  Kelle and I both served as mentors. The events for this program were good opportunities for postdocs to network.

Kelle again:  When I was a postdoc at AMNH, I organized “adventure lunch.” Once a month, a group (not just postdocs), would go to a new place for lunch that was at least a block or two outside of our normal radius. People nominated places they’d been “meaning to try”, and participation would change depending on the destination — for example, a burger joint would pull in different people than the new vegetarian restaurant — so it didn’t become clique-y.  This extra ~hour for lunch didn’t cut too much into the day, was good for folks with family obligations in the evenings (as opposed to “happy hours”), and contributed to increased social interaction amongst people who didn’t otherwise chat with each other on a day-to-day basis.

Eli:  At ESO Garching, the post-docs get together frequently through formal and informal channels. Everyday, the post-docs meet for science coffee where astronomy topics are discussed with the ESO students, fellows, and staff members. There are multiple meetings each week (e.g. journal club, star formation meeting, lunch talks) that are arranged by the ESO fellows. The ESO students and fellows all work in the same area of the building, and the social boundary between them is blurred. Lunch events around ESO Garching is sparse due to lack of restaurants, so the students and fellows tend to meet together for dinners in Munich.

What about other institutions?

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Marshall May 12, 2011 at 12:59 pm

At UCLA, there were both large campus-wide postdoc events hosted by the university postdoc association, and much more common (and more casual) socializing among the astro postdoc set. This was aided by the fact that almost all the postdoc offices were along the same hallway. When I first arrived, I worried that this would be isolating from the rest of the department, a “postdoc ghetto”, but in fact it had the effect of making the postdocs a very social and connected group. This was aided by the fact that there was great community space right there with library, kitchen, and outdoor patio areas, perfect for both lunchtime discussions (of both the technical and pop culture kind!) and also collaborative work at blackboards or the like. With all the restaurants options in Westwood, there were frequent dinner outings as well, plus movie outings to see the latest ridiculous Hollywood take on spaceflight and alien life, etc., all very informally arranged.

Here at ST, things are currently less ideal because the postdoc office area is not nearly that quality of space (in fact, it’s down in the basement). But this is being fixed as part of an institute-wide space reshuffling, which aims to get the postdocs better integrated into the rest of the science staff, among other things. I hope this works out well, and suspect it will: The quality of physical space has a tremendous impact on the quality of the interactions, in my experience.

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