Monday, July 25, 2016

Socializing with group members

This issue came up a bit at Portrait of the scientist as a young woman a few weeks ago. I am not really one to socialize with my group and never have been. Research is hard enough without personal issues getting in the way. I am not really all that social to begin with, and I like to keep the personal separate from the professional. I think it can be hard to maintain an appropriate degree of professionalism when personal relationships get involved (this is human nature). It gets worse when this leads to "Golden Child Syndrome", where the more social/better connected group members get more resources or professional opportunities than everyone else.

Although I never socialized much with my own research group, I can see the temptation for a new Assistant Professor. This has played out in our department a few times. A new professor is probably in a new city where they may not know anyone. They spend a lot of time with their research group, and may be fairly close in age if they got a TT position after a two year postdoc (2-3 year postdocs are the norm in my field, but I was older after my time at National Lab). As students and postdocs, our life experience is that we find friends in the groups we spend a lot of time with. It is a new experience to be suddenly in a position where making friends this way also involves a power differential. In my experience, this seems to be much more of an issue with new Assistant Professors, and seems to fade as the age gap between professor and student increases and the new professor makes local friends outside their research group.  I've also seen it lead to powerful resentments between the first cohort of students, who helped set up the lab and were friends with their advisor, and the next cohort, who came into a working lab and a situation where the PI was not actively searching for friends. Even so, some of my colleagues remain pretty social with their research groups.

My own students don't seem to socialize with each other as a group (I can't be certain, because I don't discuss personal lives with my students unless they bring it up). I wonder if my anti-social nature has caused this, but I don't have a problem with it. Some students seem to prefer a more social group (I say "seem", because I haven't discussed this with any students, and the power differential makes it unlikely to ever have such a conversation), but others don't, so recruitment-wise, I think it all balances out in the end.

One of the reasons I am kind of happy to not have a very social group is that I am not sure that the decision to attend group social events is ever really truly voluntary. In particular, someone from a different culture may not experience this as a choice at all. I think it is particularly problematic when the invitations come from/are issued on behalf of the PI, which can make the social event feel like a group obligation. Even absent the PI's direct involvement, if someone regularly chooses not to attend group social events, it may have a negative impact on their working relationships with group members, since people naturally gravitate towards helping people they are close to at the expense of people they know less well.

Worse when group social events perpetuate inequalities or send the message that only certain types of people are welcome in the group. At conferences, I've been in a group of attendees who decided to continue discussions at Hooters (yes, really). I've seen people at meetings organizing mixed professional/social outings to strip clubs and other non-inclusive venues. Such outings would really be problematic in the context of research group social events. Even things like research group contests can be exclusionary. It is one thing to set up an NCAA basketball bracket pool, where anyone can fill out a bracket just for fun even if they don't follow college basketball (or want to bet for money). It is another to organize a research group fantasy sports league which requires a large time commitment to following a specific sport for a long time.

I am not sure students consider the social atmosphere of the group when selecting a group to join. I wasn't very social as a student, so a group that met up every weekend would not have been a good fit for me. As a student, I spent a lot of time in the lab, and enjoyed time away from my group, though we all had pretty good working relationships. I had some friends in my group, but we did not socialize as a research group much outside of work. As a PI, I am probably too much in the non-social direction. We don't do much more than an annual group lunch, but so far it has worked for me.


xykademiqz said...

I am like you -- we don't do group events. When someone defends their MS/PhD and is about to leave, I buy a meal for the group: usually pizza for everyone or occasionally take them all to a restaurant.

Other than that, we don't do anything as a group. As you say, I don't want to force togetherness. Near as I can tell, some of them are friends, but not all. They are all professional and friendly, and we have several inter-group collaborations so a paper will have several students who did different parts of the work. But I don't butt into their relationships as long as everyone is collegial. Luckily, it has been a long time since I've had the last real troublemaker in the group.

I think I have occasionally had coffee with a student or postdoc when there was something specific to discuss, but it was more of a walking coffee, as in: I am on my way to get coffee and you want to talk with me, come walk with me and also if you want I am happy to get you a beverage, then we walk right back to my office. As Namnezia in the comments to that post you linked to, I am happy to talk about anything the student wants, but it's at work (my office or the lab).

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for the comment! Most of the colleagues I am close to are much more social with their groups, so it is good to hear that I am not the only one!

I do sometimes take group members for coffee, especially if we are traveling together at a meeting or something. We have a group lunch to send off people who finish (because everyone deserves a celebratory meal, and it is during the workday, so no imposition on personal time), and sometimes we celebrate things like publications or awards at the end of group meeting. That's it for socializing, though I have an open door policy, so my group members can talk to me as much as they like. I am not my group members' friend, and I think it is important to keep boundaries to make that clear.

xykademiqz said...

Yeah, I have several colleagues who do at least one out-of-work-hours group even per year, but usually it's more: annual or even semiannual barbecue at advisor's house, group camping trips, group 5K runs, group outings to local sporting events. Perhaps is builds group cohesion, I don't know; maybe it helps if the students are feeling lonely. But I can't help think that it's incredibly intrusive into junior people's personal time and they can't feel comfortable saying no. I am also uncomfortable with work invading too much of my own personal space, and I can't see myself hosting group gatherings at my house.

Anecdote alert! Last fall, there was a conference some 300+ miles from here, and 3 students and I had talks. I drove all 4 of us there and back, about 6 hrs each way (including some minor traffic jams). That was a lot of talking with advisor in the car; by the end of it we were scraping the bottom of the small-talk barrel, things that you don't necessarily want to discuss with advisor ever (e.g., who watches what sitcoms). I think everyone was happy to not see me for a few days afterwards. :) As you say, I am the advisor; I am there to help and support them, but I am not their buddy. It's best to keep the barrier clear.