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My department is planning an event (2-3 hours) welcoming incoming PhD students and giving them a chance to meet the rest of the department.

So far, the proposed activities for this year's welcome event are: welcome from department head and graduate program director, happy hour, followed by dinner and more drinks. (The idea behind all the alcohol is to "lull them into a false sense of what a PhD program will really be like.")

Any ideas/suggestions for what to do at this kind of event?

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    The idea behind all the alcohol is to "lull them into a false sense of what a PhD program will really be like." I love it. – xLeitix Aug 13 '15 at 15:04
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    Seven years of forced alcoholism? I'm not sure why it's a false sense at all. :-) – RoboKaren Aug 13 '15 at 15:13
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    How about something not so centered on alcohol? It's a great social lubricant, but also a great way to make non-drinkers feel excluded and to create an unfriendly climate for those who may feel threatened by being around intoxicated people. – jakebeal Aug 13 '15 at 15:51
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    Recall to read them Dante's Inferno, Canto III, line 9: All hope abandon, ye who enter here. – Massimo Ortolano Aug 13 '15 at 15:52
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    Personally, I can't stand too much forced activities at this kind of thing. I'd much rather just talk to people. These are adults, they should be able to socialize (well, PhD students, but still). I would focus much more on a pleasant atmosphere. Make sure there are places to sit, and enough reasons to mingle. Make sure there are different kinds of drinks and different kinds of food, so nobody feels left out. – Peter Aug 13 '15 at 19:45
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At the risk of making this event too serious, I would suggest that you have several speakers who talk about their personal experience concerning how they survived grad school, in this department/school or in others.

There is no more valuable information for incoming grad students than information about the personal side of grad school and how to avoid the pitfalls. And there no better way for them to feel connected to the professors and students in the department than through personal and meaningful stories -- both the highs and the lows.


I offer this suggestion because, personally, I find such meet-and-greet events to be dull, boring, and worthless, no matter how much alcohol is on offer. I realize that many academics have meager social skills and that standing around with drinks in hand can sometimes get conversation started. But I still find it a waste of time.

Likewise, "welcome" speeches are typically vapid and cosmetic. You will never here any new graduate student (or new employee of any kind) say:

"I didn't feel comfortable starting at X, but then I heard that amazing welcome speech by the Department chair."

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I would suggest adding at least one piece of a more "organized" program to get people started and let even the introvert people have something to talk about. Maybe a short Pecha Kucha-style presentation of your recent projects? Be sure to prepare name tags for everybody.

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    How about getting the existing staff & phds (or just phds, if there are lots) to do pecha kucha style summaries of what they work on? – Flyto Aug 14 '15 at 21:24
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The idea behind all the alcohol is to "lull them into a false sense of what a PhD program will really be like."

Well, I've never drunk as much alcohol as during my PhD, so it might not be far from the truth. Jokes apart, there's really no way to communicate what being a PhD student really is, because, apart from some rough generalizations, each student will live their PhD in their own personal way (e.g. I see my students getting stressed for things that, at the time, didn't stress me at all).

Now, a suggestion that we tried this year with the new bunch of PhD students. I don't know if it can work for you due to the different way of organizing the PhD programs.

We had 8 new PhD students (for our specific program) and we asked each of them to deliver a non-technical 15-min speech on their plans for the PhD, describing in which project(s) they were going to be involved, which courses they plan to attend, and if they planned to spend a period abroad. The speeches were delivered in front of the PhD program board and the advisors.

If the above is not applicable to your case, because maybe the students don't know yet what they are going to do, you may ask them to deliver a short(er) speech on their backgrounds and interests. I think it's important to let them present each other in front of the others.

In any case, make them speak before they get drunk.

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An alternative approach is to focus on the practical information a new grad student needs, combined with getting to know some people.

A good way to do this might be to split the new students into small groups, and add a professor and one or more existing students as guides to each group. The group can then go on a walking tour of the building(s) and immediate surroundings.

The guides can convey the practical information, both verbally and by showing the group around. Where are the restrooms? Showers, if available? Nearest good coffee cart? Eating places? Mail boxes? Printers? Who to contact if your office chair breaks? Where do you have the best chance of parking? ...

At the end of the tour, each new student will know a few others relatively well, and also know a professor and some more students. Then put them all together in a large room for a reception, which will be much less awkward with some prior contacts than if each student faces it alone.

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