We've set up a post-grad student support group, now what?
September 3, 2008 3:57 PM   Subscribe

I'm a (biology) PhD student working in industry rather than on campus. There are a bunch of us post-grad students doing research out here so we've decided to form a support group. But we're fast running out of ideas of what to do at meetings and attendance is falling. What are some great ideas for things we can do, topics to discuss, speakers we could invite, anything really to make the most of this opportunity? I'm particularly looking for suggestions of things which have worked for you, what kind of student support group activities have you found really worthwhile?

Our group is potentially about 20 students but usually closer to 10. We're all post-grad or international students so most of us aren't taking classes (PhDs in NZ are thesis only) and our sole reason for being based where we are is to do research. We work at a CRI rather than straight industry so our projects range from very commercial through to totally blue-sky. We also cover a surprisingly wide range of types of biology, both in organisms studied and techniques used, represent a range of ages and all have different funding and financial situations. There is just generally more variety than your standard University research group.

However we do all face the same issues. We're physically removed from the University and scattered over a range of physical locations within our organisation. So there's a lot of support and information that an on-campus student would be exposed to in their day-to-day life that we're missing. Our research is very well supported but we miss things like how to find funding, teaching opportunities, writing tips, conference and post-doc ideas, and just general moral support from other students.

So far we've tried a couple of things. Firstly is students who have a external presentation to make practise in front of us first. This is really good and something we will continue. However, we don't always have someone with a presentation to prepare. Second is the standard hanging out and drinking. Worked great the first time, not so much the second. My organisation has a lot of social opportunities already so I think we need something a bit more relevant to bring the students out.

One other standard idea that a lot of places do is journal club. I'm not so convinced this will work for us. The range of stuff we study is very wide and while I'm interested in the other students, I'm not in their fields of study. I know I'd skip reading journal articles about that stuff just like I skip the department lectures (structural biology - so boring). Also we get a different subset of people turn up each time so anything that needs regular commitment probably isn't going to work. But I can see a few one-off journal days working if we had more general or widely-relevant papers to present. I can't quite figure out the details though so ideas in this area would be welcomed.

There must be other things we can do too. We have both management support and a good (student) organiser so asking outsiders to come talk is certainly feasible. We're just not sure who to ask? We're all friendly and talkative so general discussion meetings are also feasible assuming we have topics to discuss.

We currently meet fortnightly for an hour although this is up for debate. I'm looking for a list of ideas and activities to get us through the next few months at least. Tried and tested ideas would be great, I think our group is going to die if we don't get things going in the next few meetings.
posted by shelleycat to Education (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Bring in some career development speakers.

Get an academic professor to describe what goes into choosing a school (on the spectrum from big research U to small-liberal arts), what goes into setting up your first lab, startup money vs grants, etc.

Bring in some entrepreneurial types to describe how to get into a biotech startup and what makes them successful.

Take turns picking one of the big issues in science and have a roundtable discussion. Open access, publishing data in real time on the web, peer review, wikis, open science - there are a ton of great topics right there, and you can add a bunch of more politicized stuff to the list: government interference into science, funding policies. Can incentives like X-prizes replace traditional funding? Are for-profit journals doomed by the web? What can be done to change the reliance on impact factors and the disproportionate weight they give to a very few big journals?

That's just off the top of my head.
posted by chrisamiller at 4:14 PM on September 3, 2008

....also a on different career paths in industry/academe: types of positions (in drug dev., management, etc.), skills needed to succeed in those positions, particularly moving away from the bench how people moved into those positions over time, good advice. You could make it simple by calling it something like '10 questions' or 'My perspective' or something, and ask people in different careers 10 questions about their career path. Or invite a grants officer and have them tell you how to build a relationship with them, invite an industry HR person talk about the hiring process from their perspective, etc.

Workshops on other necessary skills not always valued in academe, so not taught: in addition to presentation skills, difficult conversations/conflict management/how to select and supervise staff, etc. Ditto on all the topics to start up a lab - Kathy Barker's At the Bench and At the Helm could give an overview, or the book: winning the games that scientists play (can't remember author) - but also things that you will need on negotiating start up package/salary, balancing family and work, etc.

Possible workshop topics:
1. http://grad.msu.edu/prep/workshops.htm
2. http://career.ucsf.edu/events.html
3. http://www.oacd.health.pitt.edu/calendar_oct2008.html

Don't reinvent the wheel - have a look at what others are doing in career centers, postdoc offices, PSAs, and GSAs and follow their lead.

Be well....what you guys are doing is great!
posted by anitanita at 5:35 PM on September 3, 2008

Response by poster: These are all awesome ideas so far and none of them are things I would have come up with. I'm going to start following up on this and hopefully there will be more ideas to come!
posted by shelleycat at 5:54 PM on September 3, 2008

I don't know which university you're studying at, but every NZ uni has a Student Learning Centre (or something similar with a different name, such as Auckland Uni's Centre for Academic Development). Most of these universities have a dedicated postgraduate consultant (and some also have an extramural consultant), and they could be a source of useful ideas, or even support.

[Incidentally, if you should happen to be studying at Massey Uni, drop me a MeMail]
posted by Paragon at 5:59 PM on September 3, 2008

How about organising a field trip day / weekend to a series of innovative companies or non-profit organisations that do research & development that's relevant to your field? Or, come to think of it, field trips to other universities' seminar programs?

Also, it's more to do with writing a thesis than general support, but Joan Bolker's book "Writing your dissertation in 15 minutes a day" has a great section on how to set up a thesis support group. The main purpose of this style of group would be to challenge each other to stick to writing deadlines, get advice on how to overcome writer's / thinker's block, compare productivity if it's helpful, critique each other journal abstracts before you send them off, etc.

You could maybe have reading group sessions on other useful PhD handbooks like "Getting What You Came For" or similar... also if your PhD cohort can be anything like as neurotic and overwhelmed as mine (and me!), perhaps a session from a university counsellor or even a cognitive behavioural therapist on time management, or how to keep your motivation levels high, might help. On that note, what about a guided meditation session? Kind of off-topic, but hey - this stuff has all proven more valuable to me than any assistance with the actual content of my program!
posted by Weng at 8:54 PM on September 3, 2008

Don't reinvent the wheel - have a look at what others are doing in career centers, postdoc offices, PSAs, and GSAs and follow their lead.

To this list I add your professional association, who may very well be looking for people just like you to help inform your programs. (This is my job.)

And for the love of all that is good and holy, proofread and critique each other's grant applications, CVs, manuscripts, and anything else by which you will be judged professionally.
posted by desuetude at 6:31 AM on September 4, 2008

Response by poster: Professional association? I'm not actually sure what that means. Details? Things may be less formalised here in NZ, plus we're all in different areas of biology but if there's a resource I'm missing then that's totally the kind of thing I need to hear about.

The academic side of what we do is well taken care of by the University so I'm probably looking for activities that focus away from that. At the same time it's a great idea to gather information about the University's resources and share them amongst the group, I need to do more of that. Career type stuff is awesome but could be difficult given the variety in our students, but then I'm the odd one out scientifically so I'm getting outside input on that.

This has definitely given us a lot of ideas, some nebulous and needing chasing up and some more concrete things to start on straight away. Hopefully the others are as enthusiastic as I am!
posted by shelleycat at 3:49 PM on September 4, 2008

Professional Association or Society meaning a membership association. There's probably something local to Australasia, plus a lot of Associations with "American" or "European" in the name are actually international -- like the American Society for Cell Biology, etc.
posted by desuetude at 4:12 PM on September 4, 2008

Response by poster: Ah, I wondered if that was what you meant. The ones I've looked at in my area do nothing besides organised conferences and give travel grants to said conferences. But then I'd belong to a totally different one than any other student at my organisation so I'll suggest it as something they can look into in their areas. Thanks!
posted by shelleycat at 4:28 PM on September 4, 2008

Our research is very well supported but we miss things like how to find funding, teaching opportunities, writing tips, conference and post-doc ideas, and just general moral support from other students.
Seconding AU's excellent Centre for Academic Development for this. When I was on-campus, I found the seminars on conference presentation, funding opportunities, writing tips and so on very useful. I know it might be hard to get into town for these, but they do cover these topics pretty well.

My own experience with Ph.D. groups is that it's really important to try and keep meetings at least semi-regular. They're also heavily contingent on individuals—when key people leave/graduate/drop out, it's very easy for things to just drift. However, I know that I couldn't have got through my first couple of conference papers without the support and feedback of the group. Another thing you might want to do is set up a Yahoo group or something similar to keep in touch, upload files for discussion, and so on.

Good luck!
posted by Sonny Jim at 3:47 AM on September 5, 2008

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