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I am a second year PhD student at a UK university. Halfway through my first year, I voluntarily took over the organisational duties of a monthly, school-wide postgraduate seminar, along with two other students. This seminar is open to all postgraduate students and staff in the school. We are supervised/overseen in this undertaking by the doctoral programme director (DPD), who is my personal PhD supvervisor (and with whom I get on very well). Our organisational duties include organising speakers (two per seminar - one a PhD student, and one a member of staff or external speaker), scheduling the seminar dates/times and arranging food (pizza).

An important aspect of each seminar is our "skills talk" - given by a member of staff or an external speaker. This talk is given on some area of formal skills training, such as health and safety, equality and diversity in the school, writing up of theses, acquiring and using academic grants, etc.

Recently, our organisational "supervisor" - the DPD - recommended a small change to how we organise speakers for the "skills talk" aspect of the seminar. This involved sending an email to the heads of the research groups in the school, asking whether they could organise some small number of staff speakers from their respective research groups to speak at some of the future meet-ups of our seminar. This email was approved by the DPD and then sent out.

This was met with a request from one of the heads of research groups for a meeting with us as organisers. During this meeting, remarks were made which I found alarming. Specifically:

  • "You, as students, should not be emailing the heads of groups telling us what to do"

  • "It is not right that students are organising a seminar meet-up of this nature, involving skills training in areas such as health and safety"

  • "I am very concerned with the nature of your organisational duties"

We organisers have of course fed this back to the DPD, but the reason that the nature of the remarks alarmed me is that they appeared to imply potential consequences for us as organisers, outside of the seminar itself. Is this something which we should be worried about?

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    "You, as students, should not be emailing the heads of groups telling us what to do" - sounds like you may have used a sloppy or informal formulation which sounds like an instruction to fellow students, but inappropriate to state to faculty. It's certainly unintentional from you side, but you should check whether it could have been misunderstood. Also, it might have been good to explain the backing by your DPD. Feb 28 '20 at 18:15
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I don't see anything that you should be worried about, as you've said in your question, your supervisor is the DPD and is the one who approved everything you did.

This head of research group probably didn't know that your activities were approved by the DPD and just thought this was a bunch of students adding to his workload. My expectation is that the DPD speaks with this head of group and they sort things out between them. Your personal supervisor will have your back on this one and has more clout than the group head.

I share the concerns about health and safety though. That sounds like it should be done by a health and safety professional, which your institute will have, rather than student lead.

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  • I might suggest that interacting appropriately with ES&H professionals is a skill that needs to be learned, so getting talks on real-life examples from fellow groups is a good thing.
    – Jon Custer
    Feb 28 '20 at 16:03
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    Just refer them to the DPD for a discussion on the merits of it.
    – Buffy
    Feb 28 '20 at 17:58
  • Also I'd add as a hint that when some heads specifically request a meeting with you, potentially even indicating feedback, you might want to try and make sure the DPD is there as well to sort out any misunderstanding or resolve any questions of authority and hierarchy etc. Mar 2 '20 at 3:34
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Academia seems to exist in a perpetual state of someone's feathers being ruffled. Consider this as an earlier-than-usual exposure to that.

During this meeting, remarks were made which I found alarming. Specifically:

"You, as students, should not be emailing the heads of groups telling us what to do"

"It is not right that students are organising a seminar meet-up of this nature, involving skills training in areas such as health and safety"

"I am very concerned with the nature of your organisational duties"

We organisers have of course fed this back to the DPD, but the reason that the nature of the remarks alarmed me is that they appeared to imply potential consequences for us as organisers, outside of the seminar itself. Is this something which we should be worried about?

Those specific remarks to me seem consistent with someone who is annoyed, but not mad at you. And (again, based on these remarks) not "implying consequences for you as organizers", merely telegraphing what is bothering them, and actually making it clear they are concerned about what you have been asked to do, not about you personally.

It seems you have passed this on to those who sent you into the line of fire. Let them sort it out and continue on your merry way.

By the way, chances are high whoever has been grumpy at you about this is probably grumpy at many others about many things!

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