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I am starting my PhD in Computer Science next semester in a relatively small department (around 20 faculty members). I have been to the university a few times and I noted the collaboration among students is minimal. My prospective supervisor, most likely, is willing to help me in any research activity I propose that will increase the number of projects and publications with collaboration among students.

Thus, I am asking for different suggestions/tips of activities one can do or propose to increase the collaboration and the knowledge exchange among students/faculty members.

My question is on two levels:
1. What activities/set ups can a PhD student do/propose at the group level? (i.e. between you and other students with the same supervisor). FYI, the group is around 10 students. My supervisor is going to set up a group presentation every two weeks.

2. What activities/proposals/set ups can one suggest at the departmental level? (I was thinking of a weekly talk over coffee for graduate students in the department.)

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I seriously hope that biweekly here means “every two weeks”, not “twice a week” :) –  F'x Dec 20 '12 at 8:40
    
@F'x yes every two weeks. thought biweekly is the correct word for it :) –  seteropere Dec 20 '12 at 8:42
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@seteropere biweekly can mean both, hence my question –  F'x Dec 20 '12 at 9:05
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Biweekly usually means every two weeks; semiweekly means every half week (twice a week). –  Joel Reyes Noche Dec 21 '12 at 23:11
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My suggestion is "Reading groups". This consists of regular meetings for discussing papers or book chapters of interest. The idea is that every member participate actively by giving a presentation, at least once, in a friendly atmosphere where all the people attending have interest on the topic. –  user3836 Dec 22 '12 at 20:18

5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

There are so many group-binding activities that you can imagine… I’ll try to list just a few ideas specific to an academic setting:

  • Journal club, the obvious choice
  • Friday’s coffee and pastries, or Tuesday’s four o’ clock tea sessions, followed by flash updates (news from the group, recent awards, publications, maybe one existential technical question that someone raises, etc.)
  • Graduate students seminars: organizing seminars specifically tailored for graduate students (but inviting all those who may want to come, of course). Possible topics include early career path presentation and advice, motivational speakers (e.g. Jorge Cham from PhD comics fame), teaching skills (for TA’s), etc.
  • Encourage participation in group life: elect students’ representative to lab council or other local boards, hold regular meetings to talk about the practical aspects of your life, organize activities centered around your office space (cleaning day, fire safety day, first responder training).
  • Participate in competitions in (or near) your field, if there are any (competitions, olympiads, etc.)

All events, even if some seem only remotely relevant to the pursuit of your academic happiness, will increase group cohesion and maintain a good research atmosphere.

For all such events, favour informal settings and try to take as little time as possible. People already have heavy schedules, and they can make room for small activities but probably not a weekly two-hours setting. Brown bag seminar is one way of achieving this.

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I just started working in a small lab a few months ago. I don't know if the way our lab is functioning is right or even good, but I like it, it works for me and I feel good here, so let me explain the lab dynamic here.

Just to give some context, the lab is so small that the division to project teams (although it exists) does not make sense for any informal activity. At any given time, there is 7 - 10 PhD students in the lab, maybe 1 or 2 exchange students/interns, and we have some PhD students that are in the lab only a day or two a week. Also, the lab is almost circular, all the offices are very close and we have a habit working with open office doors.

The common topic denominator among all of us is "Computer Science" (very broad), although each of us can find one or two more student-people working a similar topic.

I find that it's much easier for me to talk science to somebody I feel comfortable having a beer and a few laughs with as well. Not saying that you have to get your lab drunk, but:

  • in the morning, the first one in makes the coffee, and we linger in the lab-kitchen for 20-30 minutes until our eyes are open. Everybody is free to join, heavy coffee drinkers are almost always there, while the others wander in from time to time. Sometimes even the senior researchers have coffee with us.

  • we all go to lunch together (partially cause we all have partially refunded meals in that resto). We have a guy who talks much and eats slow, so by the time everybody finishes, we usually spend a quality 30-40 minutes talking. We also do a coffee after lunch.

  • When somebody's leaving the lab, we try to buy some trinkets (last time it was 1euro/person), organize small going away "party" in the lab with juice and cookies, and dinner followed by drinks in the evening. Food setting is more inviting to the shy students, and after that the outgoing ones go have a few pints.

  • Students sometimes just wander in other student's offices (usually in the lazy afternoon hours) for a few words. This habit is nice because you feel less uneasy when you stroll into somebodies office to talk science, cause you're practically doing the same thing. As a less imposing version, we sometimes just wave to each other while passing in front of the office.

  • When we have organized (boring) activities / administrative seminars / things that finish early, especially out of the lab, we try to go sit for drinks if we have time.

  • the only nice idea specifically targeted for professional exchange we did was organize a "PhD students day" where we all presented our subjects in very basic streaks, from 10 - 15 minutes, so that everybody would know which students are working on interesting problems (for them).

  • every project team has team meetings at their own pace, where we present our current research, recently accepted papers, exchange students present their topics or students that went to an exchange present what they did. My team does it usually two times a month, in a fairly casual setting.

Now that I mentioned all this procrastinating, let me say something that's always been true for me among Computer Science people wherever I went (studied in Croatia, Austria and now France, and had some holidays with CS people): you can't stop computer scientists talking about tech. Tech talk bleeds through beer, we eat some of it for lunch and drink it in our coffee. When we're happy about our work, we feel comfortable enough to share it with people around us. When we're angry and stuck, we are all around people who saw us in various kinds of settings, so we don't feel that uncomfortable being grumpy and complaining.

All this said, for some more context: I'm a PhD student in France. I have a feeling that the work environment here is much much more relaxed that in the States, and than a lot of European countries as well. They seem to believe that if you do everything slowly and relaxed (except a day before a deadline), you will do a good job. So, my advice might be only applicable to similar work cultures, but I still think there's some good things there, because, at the end of the day, we all enjoy our times in the lab.

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+1 for "all this procrastinating", which it really isn't. –  JeffE Dec 20 '12 at 13:52
    
I'd like to add that "organized" informal meetings (coffee, lunch) are IMHO generally important. Including informal gatherings where the supervisors/directors/professors and also the technicians come. It's the thing to attend if you want to know what is going on. And you can discuss/solve/do lots of these these tiny little points (supervisors!) that should be said but about which you'd never actively want to disturb someone. –  cbeleites Dec 21 '12 at 18:35

I'm not sure I should be contributing to a list like this, but other people seem to think it's okay, so... in addition to what has been suggested in other answers, one thing that I've found quite useful is to have a small research discussion group among the PhD students.

The way this works is that you get about 10-15 students together from different fields within the department, to meet every week or every other week for an hour or less. At each meeting, one of the group will talk about his or her recent research. These talks are normally "beyond informal" in the sense that no prior preparation at all is expected; effectively, you're just explaining what you do to your friends. It works best when the "audience" members feel free to ask any stupid questions that may occur to them, which means two things: it's ideal if the people meeting already know each other in a non-academic context, and also important to do it without faculty involvement so that nobody is tempted to try to impress a professor. Having students from a variety of different fields of research means that you can expect to have some pretty basic questions at each presentation.

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It's a nice contribution, why do you think you shouldn't try to contribute? :confused: isn't contributing the whole point?? –  penelope Dec 20 '12 at 10:18
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It's because this seems like a list question. –  David Z Dec 20 '12 at 10:23
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Academia.SE has more relaxed limits for what is subjective and what is list-based, compared to more fact-based sites like Physics… –  F'x Dec 20 '12 at 10:33

A few more points:

  • as undergrad students, we had a campfire to celebrate the end of labwork/seminars/lectures.

  • now (on the teaching side) we have a campfire to celebrate the end of labwork/seminar/lectures.
    (it usually includes some birthdays as well)

  • in one institute we had quite regularly after-work activities like a bike tour, going swimming, bowling, Xmas market etc. happened. They were "scheduled" every once in a while, so no problem if you'd like to come in general, but just not that day. You could just join in next time (however, next morning at coffee you'd of course hear what you did miss). This included everyone in the institute but the big boss.

  • (Sometimes people signed up for university sports courses together.)

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We did regular "happy hours" about once a week - going out for drinks or to somebody's place for some activity (or once in two weeks if there were deadlines) with my last team, which doubled as in-team birthdays and other celebrations. People would also bring something sweet to eat at morning coffee. But, I contained my answer to my current environment, which is a bit different (also a bit more international) than the one I with during my internship. –  penelope Dec 21 '12 at 18:58

I am part of an interdisciplinary NSF IGERT program on Water Diplomacy which supports 15 or so PhD students across 4+ departments. The program has done a commendable job of making opportunities for team building, collaboration, and the emergence of happy accidents within the group. Here are a few things to add to the running list of answers:

  • Weekly colloquiums where one student presents their work for an hour, followed by half an hour of collective brainstorming, critique, and discussion. Light breakfast provided.
  • Annual weekend retreats to revisit program priorities, assets, and areas for improvement. We cook meals, have fires, and chat.
  • Monthly evening workshops/round-table discussions on a theme - this year's series is on civic engagement. Dinner provided.
  • Share office space. While not uncommon for PhD research groups, it's unique to have students across multiple departments sharing space.
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