New Employee Orientation

Every time you start a new job they have some kind of new employee orientation. I remember very clearly the year I started working at my college tutoring center and had to attend a two day orientation and training. This professional feeling workshop was starkly contrasted with the video tape in the backroom orientation I had to attend when I started working at a movie theater the same summer.

Today I had the orientation for new employees-in English. The best thing about orientation is the free stuff! Plus you learn a lot about the history and policies of your organization. Once, a previous boss complemented me on always knowing the rules about employee tasks. I was shocked. They covered all of this in orientation. I mean I didn’t remember what the rule was but I did remember that they had talked about it so I went and looked it up in my notes. Apparently this in not the norm.

Today’s orientation was great. The free loot consisted of a 2G USB stick with the university logo, a cloth bag with the logo, some handbooks for organizations, a spiral notebook with university logo, a pen with university logo, and a good lunch. They covered topics ranging from the history of the university presidents, a very cool modern art museum that is part of the campus system, to inventions that have come from research at the university. I was inspired and took a lot of notes, and am planning some upcoming posts based on the day. However, today I just wanted to say, you should go to your new employee orientation. Not only will you learn about what benefits your company offers but you will get free stuff and hear about all the cool things that you might not know about the other parts of the company.

LOOT!

LOOT!

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Leaving work after 11pm

Tonight I headed back to work after my Swedish class (18-20:30) because I hadn’t finished everything I had planned for the day by 17:25 when I had to walk out of the office to go to class. No problem, I thought, I can just go back and finish up everything and take a later bus. I figured I had about an hour more of work to do. And since it was basically busy work, it wasn’t a problem to do late in the evening but as we had committed to get the work to a collaborator in just a few days I wanted to get it to my PI ASAP.

When I made it back to the science building I was about 21 (9pm). The building was totally deserted. I thought it was a little weird to not see any students studying or working on projects in the main hallways. I know 21:00 is late but when I was a student in science we often met up to work on homework and projects after dinner. As I walked to my office I noticed that I didn’t see a single person. Not only were there no students studying but basically there were no workers walking around the halls. First, the building is set up with many wings that are closed off by security card but the way I walk through the building is past tons of study rooms, the main cafeteria and the main instrument labs, as well as, some research wet labs. This building has over 450 employees and 900 students taking classes in it and I saw not a single person.

After getting to my office I locked myself in and finished up my work. I love being at work really early or really late when there are few people around. In graduate school it was my habit to get to work around 7:20am and my favorite part of the morning was before 8am when I would have a cup of coffee, answer emails, and sing my country music aloud in my office. Even the few times that other students came in early and caught me singing (and maybe dancing) around our 15+person office didn’t damper the fun (and honestly productivity) I achieved during my early mornings alone. Tonight, as I made figures and tables I played my music loudly and sang along. I am sure if there had been anyone on my floor they would have come to investigate. However I didn’t see anyone.

I finished up the work that had to be done on my office computer about 5 min after a bus had left. The next bus wasn’t for a while since they only go twice an hour this late in the evening. I decided to work on a few other things before heading to the bus stop for the next bus.  I walked out of the building a different way than I had come in and still saw no one. Then I walked the 5 min walk to the bus stop (a huge bus interchange) and still saw no one. As I was walking, I started thinking  that maybe this was a cultural thing. In the US, at top universities you would expect to see people working all sorts of hours. You would expect the students to be studying all times of night. Is is really that the students are working and studying less in Sweden or that they are just not doing at work?

In graduate school it drove me crazy when a few people I worked with tried to make comments about the fact that I left work around 18-19 every day, when I had come in to work hours before they had. I felt that staying at work when I had put in a full day and wasn’t working very hard anymore was posturing instead of actually being productive.

One of my commitments for this postdoc was to be organized enough that I could leave work at a reasonable time (17-19) and if I needed to, I could monitor work from home. I have mostly been succeeding at this goal but honestly there have been times that I feel I am not working hard enough. These are feelings I can mostly associate with feeling like I am just not working enough. These are not new feelings for me. In graduate school there were times that I felt I wasn’t being productive enough, time I felt I wasn’t very motivated and so wasn’t giving it my all. Basically I went into almost every meeting with my advisor feeling that I could have done more.

Recently I have been feeling this “not working hard enough” feeling until I stop to analyze if maybe I am not putting in enough time. Last weekend I spent all of my time alternating between work and sleeping. I would work for a few hours and then take a nap, then I would wake up with an idea for work and roll over in bed and start working on my laptop. This kind of work schedule is one I easily fall into but isn’t sustainable or healthy. It is definitely a pattern I would like to minimize. However, no one can say that I haven’t put in lots of time in the last two weeks. So are these feelings of inadequate work real or are they socialized into me via the US Chemistry Ph.D. mentality?

Bowling Take 2

This week for our Thursday social  we went bowling to use our 1 hr free coupons.

While I still think bowling is really boring I did have quite a lot of fun. We had 3 lanes and were all able to bowl 2 complete games. We even ended up using extra coupons and continuing to bowl for a 2nd hour. After bowling we ended up going out to dinner at a Spanish/Mexican food place around the corner. Now I ate Mexican food a total of 5 times when I lived in Chicago (5 years…not counting food I made myself). Once was for a work lunch, and the other two times were to try a few places. However the Mexican food there was neither TexMex nor the type of spicy meat sauces I like from Mexico…it was mostly lightly spiced dry meat in tacos etc. Now none of the food I tried was truly terrible but neither was it really what I wanted and since Mexican is cheap to make at home I stopped eating it at restaurants. This restaurant wasn’t traditional Mexican food or Spanish food but it was well spiced and the meat was cooked well.

We had a fun, really nerdy discussion about the type of video games we all like to play and grew up playing. As the friend of one of the guys’ girl friends said at the bowling alley (they didn’t come to dinner) it was like we were in the episode of The Big Bang Theory. I don’t think she thought this was a compliment.

As we ordered in the resturant the waitress kept responding in Swedish when anyone spoke in english (some of the guys from other european contries dont speak Swedish). So I decided to order in Swedish…I am supposed to be practicing right? The guys were all ordering beers and I asked the waitress “vilken typ av tequila ha du?” to which the waitress looked at me like I was crazy. When I repeated in English “what type of tequila do you have?” she still looked at me like I was crazy. Well apparently most people order liquor off the menu without knowing the brand, all the places we have gone have said: vodka, tequila, ….. The waitress didn’t know what types they had and had to pull out all the bottles and show me. Obviously,since I don’t drink a lot of beer, I will have to get used to the crazy looks as I continue to ask “vilken typ av tequila ha du?” “vilken typ av vodka ha du?” “vilken typ av whiskey ha du?” …

Mental Health and Gradschool Questions

I have been reading the recent flurry of blog posts on mental health and graduate school. After thinking about what I could add to the conversation I decided instead to focus on my own story and make just a few comments on what a few others have said. At the bottom of this post I have tried to collect links to the relevant posts.

 

First, I decided to be a chemist at the end of high school. Both of my parents have PhD’s in chemistry and I tried for quite a long time to not be like them, but you do what you are good at. Since I had this perspective, I went to college, knowing I was going to go to graduate school. Because of this I planned my classes and took opportunities to optimize research experiences. I happen to be dyslexic and knew from high school that I wasn’t going to be able to do well in college level English and history classes so I worked hard in high school to take AP tests so as not to have to take these in college. I have always said that I could fool a 3 hrs test better than a trained professor for 3 months. With these exams, I entered college with close to 60 hrs (I was a junior in standing) and I was able to take 3 bachelors of science degrees and a science minor. I literally took 4 non-science classes in college: 2 in Swedish and 2 in philosophy. I had worked in 4 different research labs by the end of college (1 REU like program, 1 biochem and 1 organometallic lab at my university, and 1 biochem lab in Sweden for a summer). Because of all of this I was a good candidate on paper. I applied to 5 top 10 graduate schools. I didn’t get in to 2 of them but when I called and asked why they both said that one of my letters of recommendation had come over a month late and that they didn’t accept anyone until their application was complete. By the time my application was complete they had accepted everyone they were going to. Honestly, this was fortuitous. One of these schools was the place my parents had met while my mom was a grad student and my dad was a post doc and I am not sure I would have been able to choose anywhere else if it had been an option.

I ended up attending a great school that fit my personality much better than the others. While visiting the school I called my mom to tell her that I had decided to move to Chicago because I would “graduate in purple velvet robs and get to buy a real winter coat.” While of course these were not the deciding reasons for my choice they were the cherry on top. I feel like this description of my choice is probably the most fundamental description of my graduate life. I had picked a great school, with the type of atmosphere and level of internal competitiveness that suited me, in a place I wanted to live, and with a climate I would enjoy. I had tried as hard as possible to balance my work and life right from the start.

I choose an apartment in the city about a 25 min commute in the morning to campus, understanding that I could have lived further into the city which I would have liked better but the commute at 9:30 pm would have been over an hour. And the night you are stuck at work till 9:30 is not the night you can handle an hour long commute. By separating myself from campus I made hanging out with other students harder but gave myself the type of apartment, in the type of neighborhood I felt most comfortable in (I am truly a city girl at heart), for the amount I could afford on a grad student stipend.

As I looked for a group, I met with the professors multiple times. I asked a lot of questions at group events and group meetings to try and figure out group dynamics. And from the final groups I was most interested in I took 4 different girls, each at a different stage in the group, out for coffee off campus to ask them personal questions about the group dynamics, the work, the professors, and grad school in general. I was really confident when I choose my groups. During orientation the department administrator had said to remember that there were three things to consider when you picked a group: (1) the project/work, (2) the group, and (3) your PI, you have to like at least 2 out of the three…and after finishing I have to say that if one of them isn’t your PI get ready to leave with a masters. I choose my groups thinking 1 and 3 were strong and there were people in 2 that were strong also.

When I joined 2 research groups with a combined theoretical and experimental project, I thought I knew what I was getting into. While I will say that I can’t remember an episode where I had some of the physical responses described by others, and I didn’t often sit in my apartment crying, I did drink too much, sleep too little, and have very little social life. And I was a very balanced graduate student. I knew what I was getting into when I went to grad school. I even looked down on one of the schools I visited when the grad students said they only worked 45 hrs a week and not on the weekends. “No wonder they take so long to graduate”-I thought.

One of my professors sent out a list of group policies that included that 60 hrs of work a week was expected, but this could include teaching, reading papers, and writing. I thought this was generous. I set up my schedule to arrive at campus around 7 am and leave most week days by 6:30 pm. By taking a quick 30 min lunch at my desk (I did mostly bring food with me though) I was able to fit in 11 hrs of work each week day, leaving about 5 hrs I needed to get in on the weekends. This meant if I came to campus around 9 am on Saturdays I could leave by mid-afternoon. This is how I got “work/life balance”. I felt that by cooking dinner at home and having time to hang out with my friends on a Saturday afternoon I was balanced. I was extremely lucky to make 2 very close friends within the first 4 months of graduate school. During our 5 years in Chicago, we had season tickets to the ballet and the symphony and liked to go out to eat at nice restaurants. But mostly we watched nerdy movies or chick-flicks and ate takeout and drank wine.

For me classes were easy, and teaching was easy as I had almost 4 years’ experience as a tutor from college. I had no problems with my qualifying exams in my 2nd year but soon after I started collaborating with a girl from the material science department. She had had some horrible interpersonal problems in her department that had put her behind in research. I noticed that the way her boss ran his group was extremely different from my PIs and I thought that if I had the same problem mine would not have been very sympathetic. As I started collaborating more and more I began to look around at different management styles and by the middle of my 3rd year I know that I often was looking for flaws in my group dynamics and with the PIs’ management of the group interactions.  By this point the group dynamics in my office had changed drastically from when I had joined the group and I felt that I sat in a “boys club.” I often watched while others got their names on papers and got picked for collaborations because they had poker night, or hung out on the weekend. I once watched the person who sat next to me go around the room to everyone else and ask for help but specifically not ask me…I knew how to do what he was asking about and in the end I didn’t speak up. Honestly I stopped trying to fit in with these people who didn’t like me. I had walked in on too many conversations about how I wasn’t friendly, how crazy it was that I was best friends with so-and-so cause they were so nice. One of the issues is graduate school is everything is unofficial. When you work for a company there is a hierarchy. When you are in grad school all grad students are supposedly the same and some treat it like an extension of college and other treat it like a job.

Because of this tension I felt in my office, I always thought that my struggle in graduate school was the group dynamics. Until the last 6 months of my PhD, I had always gotten along well with both of PIs. Looking back I was always nervous when I met with both of them, but mostly because I always thought I could have worked more…when I did meet with them the meeting always went well and they never told me there were any problems. We always discussed the science and they even shared many things about their travels, their families, and their opinions on academia with me. I thought I was one of the really lucky ones who had chosen well at the start of grad school. When I got near the end I began making an outline of my thesis and asking if what I had listed was enough. After getting confirmation on this I tried to wrap up all the projects we had discussed.

One of my PIs says that his requirement for defending your thesis is that all of your papers had to be in submission form but every time I asked him about a paper he was editing he would say things like oh I have to read so-and-so’s first. As we could go 15-30 rounds of passing a paper back and forth this was really frustrating. Finally, I was allowed to schedule a date for my oral defense (which was over a month out).

About 2.5 weeks before my scheduled defense, I was frantically trying to compile my thesis, while doing things like taking a day to make a 3D journal cover for one of my articles. After approving the journal cover, my PI asked to postpone the date so that we could have more time to edit all the manuscripts that were in draft form. We postponed 2 weeks to the last day of the month. So I had to get my paper thesis to the committee 2 weeks before and I would have those 2 weeks to back up my apartment, move all of my stuff to storage, get down to just 2 suitcases of things to move to Sweden. On the day that my paper thesis was due, I dropped a copy off at each member of my committee’s offices. I had a long conversation with the PI who had the strict graduation requirements about a manuscript that was at a journal and as I left his office I said “OK, my parents will buy their plane tickets to come now”. We then had a conversation about how he didn’t understand why parents wanted to be at someone’s thesis defense. (Seriously…this is a big day in someone’s life…way bigger than college graduation…on par with your wedding day).

During this whole process of postponing, my biggest problem was that as everyone around me was telling me my PI was acting completely unreasonably. I kept thinking that since I didn’t totally disagree with his points just his methods that anything I could do to make him happy was worth doing. Look: I agree, a more prefect thesis, more papers published those were good for me also. Making sure my PI liked me when I left and still thought of me as a hard worker or a good student was critical.

Two days after distributing the paper copies of my thesis, at 10:40pm on a Sunday night, as I was frantically packing in my apartment I got an email from my other PI saying they had talked and thought we should postpone to “button up” everything. I still to this day don’t know what that means. Now hysterically crying on the phone with my mom I had my big breakdown of graduate school. I replied to the email saying that I was confused why but if that is what they both thought then it was what we would do. What else could I say at that point…

On Monday I emailed the other committee members to let them know they didn’t need to read the 300 page thesis I had left with them on Friday. I frantically looked for a place to live as I had to be out of my apartment by the end of the month and obviously I was going to be around more than just a few days spent crashing at a friend’s. My parents had to put their plane tickets on hold so they could use the flights later (hopefully).

I had to wait a week before I could meet with both PIs in person (they were both at conferences) and I went to the meeting dreading it. Disclaimer: I am a crier. I cry when I am stressed. I cry when I am angry. I cry when I am frustrated and don’t know how to explain. However by pre-thinking what I am going to say, and how I will respond to certain questions (just like for a presentation) I rarely cry in public. I often cry at home but mostly can hold it in when at work; the last time I cried in public was an argument with a teacher 2nd year in high school. I was pretty sure I was going to cry in this meeting with my PIs and was actually trying to figure out how not to do it till the end.

I went to the meeting determined to explain why what they had done was such a big deal (in a response email one of them asked if postponing really mattered) and how much it had disrupted my life. I got to the office and they acted like this was a totally normally meeting. I could feel myself starting to boil with anger and took out a Kleenex to blow my nose and get myself under control. As I blew my nose my PI said “oh do you have this cold that is going around”. Honestly, I snapped. “No I don’t have a cold; I am trying desperately not to cry because I am so angry I can’t speak. Do you not realize how you have disrupted my life, cost me thousands of dollars, and you didn’t even explain what the problem was.” I explained the fact that I had been in this same office on the previous Friday and no indication was given that there might be problems, was really insulting. Going forward we were all going to have to communicate a lot better and if there was a problem I needed to be told immediately, that I couldn’t read minds. Both of them were floored to say the least. One of them hadn’t recovered by the end of the meeting (2 hrs later), in fact he kept saying things like “but it will be better for you”…in the end I had to reiterate that I wasn’t going to argue about the reasons for postponing but that the method and communication was a complete failure.

A month later when I finally defended it was almost worse that they acted so proud like they knew I was great and always had faith in me. “Grad school is incredibly difficult, but it doesn’t need to be demoralizing.”—Color Blind Chemist I left feeling little pride and a lot of relief.

 

I think my biggest revelation is that they system is broken (I know it has been discussed before). In the current system the PI has complete autonomy. While I know that an advisor has a lot of rolls to fill and  you can’t expect everyone to be good at all of them, I never asked my PIs to be more than they were. I found an outside mentor; I attended workshops on writing skills, speaking skills, and career development on my own time. I found outside money to attend conferences. I was frugal with my research budget and I took the initiative to start and maintain collaborations both inside and outside our university. When at a meeting in my 5th year that one of my PIs asked if I had looked at the literature and I brought up a slide with the literature summary, on the one hand I was insulted “you have known me 4 yrs and expect that I didn’t do my research?” and on the other hand I knew he would ask this question and wouldn’t remember what we had discussed last time so had come prepared. This kind of high stress environment is part of the grad school experience but the current structure gives all the power to the advisor and doesn’t have good structures for the student to use if they have issues. It is all very hypocritical. The same week I ended up defending, one of my year mates was also defending in my group. Somehow he didn’t have to jump through the same hoops I did. Not that his defense was without critique but it is extremely frustrating to have everyone held to such different standards. I know it is not possible to make life fair and I have been told that better students are often pounded on more and more is expected of them but while this might build good scientists (I find this highly debatable) it definitely doesn’t build comradery between graduate students or scientific collaborations between PIs and students but instead fosters power struggles.

My best friend was one who left with her masters after 4 years in graduate school because her boss thought that her year mate always worked more and got more done than she did (very simplified version of story). Now the fact she worked more hrs every day and the other student didn’t work on the weekends at all was not as important as his perception of their personalities which he equated with work ethic. Now the year mate is also leaving after 5 years.

This is a huge problem. As has been noted by others, choosing your group and advisor is critical but there is no way to know everything before you are really there. You can have a great relationship for 5 years and still have major problems, I did. Students are at the complete mercy of the advisor when it comes to projects, publications, graduating and moving on, and letters of recommendation in the future. Student have no leverage, no bargaining power, no compensation and nowhere to go when they are struggling (yes I know there are good counseling centers at many schools-including mine but this has no actual direct impact on the advisor-advisee relationship). Basically by the time you get to any major problem it seems like the most productive thing to do is move groups. This is demoralizing for most and if nothing else complicated logistically.

Now I am in Sweden and I have been looking around at the system here. I can say the method of finding a graduate position is much more stressful, as they apply directly for a specific project or group or grant. Also having the announcements be posted at any time of the year there isn’t the same structure of everyone in your class, and going through orientation together. However, it seems like most students have better work/life balance or at least don’t have to sneak around as much to have it. There are more department discussions of alternate careers and what is expected in academia (I have started a lot of these discussions but everyone has joined in, including some of the most senior professors).

I don’t know what the right fix is but I am glad that there are groups of people discussing this at length. With more conversation comes more exposure and hopefully a shift in the autonomous culture of chemistry graduate school programs in the US.

 

Original Conversation between Chemjobber and Not the Lab

Is Graduate School in Chemistry Bad for Mental Health 1

Is Graduate School in Chemistry Bad for Mental Health 2

Is Graduate School in Chemistry Bad for Mental Health 3

Is Graduate School in Chemistry Bad for Mental Health 4

Is Graduate School in Chemistry Bad for Mental Health 5

comment from professor about choosing profs: http://chemjobber.blogspot.se/2013/01/is-graduate-school-in-chemistry-bad-for_11.html?showComment=1358035454449#c4473973353610582084

 

Post by others in response to initial conversation:

http://dennymayo.tumblr.com/post/40437391233/on-graduate-school-in-chemistry-and-mental-health

https://theorganicsolution.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/did-i-not-work-hard-enough/

http://justlikecooking.blogspot.se/2013/01/grad-schools-mental-toll.html

http://colorblindchemist.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/mental-health-in-graduate-school/

 

Chemjobber’s Summary of the Conversations

http://chemjobber.blogspot.se/2013/01/more-on-graduate-school-in-chemistry.html

Coffee for Science, Cake for Fun

I have said before one of my favorite things about my new job is the coffee hours. Not only does this mean I never have to make coffee for myself and that I am regulating how much coffee I drink by being lazy but it is also a great built in way for new members of the department to get to know people and it fosters collaboration. It is easy for a student to ask a senior professor something simple as you can ask it casually at coffee hour. As I am not very good at remembering to go to coffee hour I have been setting alarms to remind me to stop working.

However, on Friday afternoon I need no alarm, partially because duh it is Friday but also because I eat a smaller lunch so I can have CAKE!

Today’s coffee hour was perfect, the cakes were wonderful and there were even a few that people had brought back from home to share (i.e., one from St. Petersburg) and there was lots of chocolate. But the best part was that because everyone comes to Friday coffee hour and everyone sits down for a while to eat their cake I got to witness 3 collaborations forming and 2 problems solved by helping each other. There was much catching up…”what have you been up to lately”, “oh I am annoyed ___ isn’t working” etc.

I really like this structured yet informal way to provide both socialization and collaboration. Is there a way this could be implemented in American research groups effectively? I am still pondering the ways…

Work Life Balance: Working Out

One of the main workshop and development conversations in science academia both in graduate school and beyond is how to achieve work life balance. I have attended so many workshops on this topic it is crazy. I am not sure there is really such a thing as work life balance but this year I made my New Years Resolutions in the hope of being healthier, happier, and more balanced. To me this means being healthy: both the food I eat and working out, being happy: doing fun things, staying in touch with friends, and balancing that with hard work and some good publications (otherwise how would you know you were productive :).

This is the first post in what I hope will be a year long series on how I am finding work life balance and working on my goals for the year.

One of my goals for this year is to work out more regularly. To this end, I decided to try to ease into it this time instead of trying to start too quickly which I did often during graduate school. My goal is to work out 3 times a week in January and then slowly increase this amount to 4-5 times a week in February and March. I decided to start with some workout DVDs I have (I own about 30ish).

Today I did my first workout of the new year; I tried a Jillian Michaels tape. What I notice each time I start again is that I am sore, out of breath, and that I don’t do the workout “full out”. I made it through the hr long workout but just barely.

This time what is particularly interesting is that I lost about 3 kg on my recent trip to London by just walking around. I was being cheap when I had time to kill instead of paying to take the tube back to my hotel I just “went shopping”, i.e. wandering through the stores and buying nothing. I hoped that this would be a good kick off to my fitness this year. I have been eating quite healthily since I moved into my apartment as during graduate school the way I learned to eat cheaply was by cooking healthy food in bulk.

Even though my back is sore from arm circles and some planks (crazy I know), I think this is a good start for the year.

Work Christmas Parties ? Why?

One of the biggest questions I am seeing answered on other blogs this season is about what to wear or what to take or how to act at a work holiday party. While these are all good questions to get answers to (see end of post for some of my favorite links) here I will just touch on my history with work holiday parties. In an academia sense there are a few types of work holiday parties. First there is a research group party, a department party, a school wide party and then even some smaller groups with in the university also have parties (like our juniors bowling party last week: http://wp.me/p2QzcO-3c).

In undergrad I attended the department holiday party and the 2 years I was in a research group I went to the group holiday party, then some of the clubs I was part of had parties. All of these were pretty fun. The department party was sponsored by the department so the food was pretty good. The club parties tended to be pizza but sometimes had a fun activity. The research group I was in at the end of undergrad was really small the first year and it was just a potluck, hang out type party. The second year when we were larger we went to a fancy bowling place for food and bowling (which our boss completely paid for) but as I am not a huge fan of bowling and this happened right before I needed to take all my finals I didn’t stay long.

When I got to graduate school we were officially accepted into our research groups right around thanksgiving so the holiday party was the first big event to get to know your research group in a social setting. I of course attended both groups’ holiday events, the department holiday party, and the graduate school holiday party each year. Now the department party was food, alcohol, and some kind of drawing or raffle with some music and games some of the years. I always dreaded going but it was a good time to catch up with friends in other groups who I didn’t see often and I always ended up having a pretty good time. The graduate school party was often at a nice location (the alumni club right on the lake downtown for 2 of the years) and the food and drinks were good. Since it was free as long as you signed up on time I often combined this with a shopping trip at some downtown stores, plus good free dinner. Finally the two research groups I was in were large (>25 people at all times, up to about 45 in one of them). This makes planning holiday parties more difficult. One of the groups (the larger one) had the tradition of going to a fancy restaurant for dinner. The first few years we had a prefix menu where everyone paid ahead of time and you got 3 courses. This cost about $30-40 per person but I would just budget this into my holiday expenses. Then the group started picking other restaurants and the method for paying became more and more messy. I don’t mind splitting a bill with people but graduate students are cheap and no one would pay their share with out being forced to. Plus splitting a bill with 40 people is just a pain…even when we split between 6-8 at a table it was a pain depending on who you got sat by. The biggest problem I had with this type of party is that you actually didn’t get to meet anyone in your group. You sat by people you commuted to the restaurant with (i.e., the ones you knew) and then you couldn’t move around to talk to other people so you were stuck with the same people for hours. My other research group had a holiday celebration that I enjoyed much more. This event was a whole weekday in Jan or Feb at our boss’s house. We would show up around 9am, have some bagels and coffee and then have a day full of fun science talks. Sometimes they were project ideas that someone had just tried thinking they would never work, sometimes they were talks on how to use a useful tool (I did an in depth end note talk a few years in a row) and sometimes they were talks from group alumni about what they were up to now. Then after  lunch (Chicago pizza) we would go outside and have  snowball fight, build a snowman, or just fool around for a while. After the rest of the talks we returned to campus around 5pm. This structure was nice because it offered multiple hang out times to talk to people. Of course some people sat in one place or talked to only their friends but I was able to use the food and coffee breaks to talk to people about what they were working on and I started 2 different collaborations at these events. As an added bonus this event being in Jan removed it from the stress of the rest of the holiday season.

As I have explained before I have a go to the holiday party even if you don’t feel like it policy so when the sign up sheet for the holiday party went up in the coffee room, I signed up. Then when I learned from a discussion by others at lunch that we had to bring food…I said I would bring cookies. No one corrected me so when I saw the sign up sheet for the food and the only options were traditional food for the Julbord I was a little miffed. After deciding I could cook meat balls (I make Swedish meatballs often to eat myself) I realized the problem that the party was a Monday after work. How was I going to bring warm meatballs to the office then? Were they going to be able to heat them up? what was the plan? I kept asking these questions of the guys I eat lunch with and never really got any answers so I decided to cook my meat balls at my apartment on Monday afternoon and take them straight to the party. Of course they wouldn’t be hot but at least they should be warm. Turns out they had decided on a way to reheat the food onsite (sorta) and the schedule was much more complicated that I knew.

First there was a talk which I had never seen on the schedule, then everyone went upstairs for dinner. Dinner was a Julbord buffet that was a mix of all the food people had brought. There was a lot of food but also a lot of people so the organization of where the food was, what was hot and when people should get in line wasn’t great. After the dinner started there were signing groups, drinking songs, and a trivia game during and after eating. After all of this they announced a treasure hunt. Since the party had already lasted for 3 hrs and I had planned to do some work before I went to bed, I snuck out to head home.

What I learned is that scheduling a holiday party is always difficult and there is probably no good way but just like with any social event making it cheaper for the planning group just puts the costs off onto the guests, either in actually money, time, or inconvenience. A good party balances these costs and work parties are always a mess.

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Holiday Party Attire Links

Festive Attire (That Won’t Make You Cringe) – Sociology of Style

Things That Make You Sparkle – Sociology of Style

5 Outfits of Christmas – Sociology of Style

Casual Party Attire – Capital Hill Style

Two Ways: Holiday Party Looks – Capital Hill Style

Two Ways: Holiday Red Pants – Capital Hill Style

Some Good Coworker or Friend Gift Links

Holiday Hot Coco – Capital Hill Style

Gifts for Co-Workers – Capital Hill Style

May your work holiday parties be classy and at least not boring 🙂

Bowling and Christmas Table (Julbord)

Bowling…why is bowling a group activity? I don’t understand why people want to go bowling or skating in groups. I don’t find either of these activities particularly fun but I will suck it up and go when the group is going. The “juniors” in the department announced that it was a holiday tradition to go to a bowling place in the city and then eat at their attached restaurant with a traditional julbord.

So what is Julbord? It is the traditional Swedish Christmas dinner. From listening to the guys at work discussing it and seeing all the adverts for different locations posted all over the city (at bus stops) it seems like it is pretty popular for groups to go out to have a Julbord for holiday parties. Julbord consists of a large buffet with many types of sil (pickled herring), smoked salmon, eggs and then a large selection of cold cuts of ham, and salami, cooked potatoes, and meatballs. Obviously it is easier to go out for this kind of meal to get a larger variety in each type of food than if you are buying them for just your family at home. The place we were headed to for work was supposed to have 40+ types of sil (not that I was excited as I don’t like it but hey).

I am all for doing some traditional Swedish activities but the price for bowling and the Julbord is my weekly budget for food (most often it is what I spend for a week and a half for longer). OK well I have the policy that you do whatever the group culture is for the holiday parties so I sucked it up and went. On the bus ride to the city others in the group were complaining that more girls in the department didn’t come for bowling. I wanted to explain to them how much this cost vs. the benefit was not worth it so that was probably why.

When we got to the bowling we had to pay to check our coats (really?) and after changing our shoes, which is the first thing I hate about bowling…the ugly, uncomfortably flat, smelly shoes, we split up and went to the bowling lanes. I have always thought that group activities like bowling and skating our really divisive since you end up dividing into groups and especially with bowling it is not easy to change groups and mix with different groups of people. Our group was spread out over 3 different lanes and it was hard to talk to anyone at the other lanes as you felt like you weren’t paying attention to your lane or they were always calling you for your turn. We had paid for 1 hr of bowling. I did OK the first game (I am not horrible at bowling…this isn’t why I hate it), then I got bored and stopped paying attention to my turn 🙂

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After we finished bowling we headed up to the Julbord. While the food was fine it definitely wasn’t worth the amount we spent on it. I am not sure why most gradschool guys have decided that buffets are a good value. I wish they would actually figure out how much they pay for the meal vs. how much they eat and that for 90% of people it is a really bad deal. I almost always pay 2x as much for food that is not as good as a plated meal when I go to a buffet. I guess if you eat a lot a lot it could possibly be worth it but seriously you shouldn’t be eating that much of the kind of food that is available in buffet form. We did get free hour of bowling coupons so hey we get to this again in January, score.

Honestly the best part of this whole night was my 25 min walk home to my apartment through the snow covered city. I decided not to wait for the bus and instead wondered home with fun music blasting in my headphones :). I had so much fun wondering home and looking at all the fun old buildings plus I love the sound of a city at night in winter.

Making Glögg…an American-Swede Tradition?

In my parents house the holidays smells like glögg. Every year my dad, messes with and putters with making his glögg making the whole house smell fabulous. As my little brother and I have gotten old enough to drink legally, we have also partaken in the glögg. However, I have some very distinct memories of our childhood home and the smell of Christmas tree and glögg on Christmas Eve as we made Scottish Shortbread.

Now what is glögg? It is a Scandinavian spiced & hot wine. Perfect for those long winter days (that look like nights). Go for a long walk? you need glögg. Have a long bus ride? you need glögg. Get rained on the whole time you are at Tivoli? you need glögg.

When I moved away from my parents to Chicago I needed to learn to make glögg for myself…I got my dad to write down what he does and practiced a few times for myself and close friends before making it for things like the work holiday party. Now I have been making glögg often during the holiday season for 5 years. I have a homemade is better and “Fredin’s are good at this” mentality about making glögg (I also feel this way about meat gravies which I also learned to make from my dad). Now that I live in Sweden I assumed that the glögg would be amazing.

It turns out most people (I mean everyone really) buys glögg. Either low alcohol % from the grocery store or svart vin/stronger from the liquor store. While some of the kinds I tried, both at work and with my family were good they weren’t as potent or as spicy as the homemade kind we made in the US. Maybe this is a Amerian-Swede trying to create culture or a connection to history…or maybe it is just my dad but either way I think I am a homemade glögg person for life.

Of course after telling my family in Sweden about our traditional Fredin homemade glögg, my aunt picked a day during the holiday weekend for me to make this homemade glögg for everyone. The problem is that in the US both my dad and I make our glögg “starters” at the end of each holiday season for the next year. I only had about 3 weeks until I needed to use a starter.

So, I went to the liquor store to get vodka and a sweet strong winish liquor (brandy, sherry, or svart vin) and to the grocery store to get all the spices. First, I really don’t understand small bottles of actual liquor. Liquor doesn’t go bad, and it is so much cheaper to buy a handle than a 750ml bottle, plus you don’t have to go back to the store so often. But at Systembolaget (the liquor store, Systemet) the largest bottle of vodka they had was 750ml. In Chicago I used the bottle of a handle of Jose Cuervo because it was large and square, with a good handle giving good mixing when shaking the spices into the liquor. Here I had to buy the only bottle of 750ml vodka which looked pretty cheap and was  a brand I had never heard of.

Back in my apartment I poured out a glass of vodka (an American water sized glass) from the bottle and added all the spices (cardamon, cinnamon, cloves, orange peal) and some svart vin. Then I heated the whole mixture for a few min on the stove keeping it well below boiling but still hot to get some of the spice flavor to extract into the alcohol. Then I re-bottled the starter mix and I was ready to make real glögg.

glögg starter

glögg starter

just add wine and sugar….

The glass of left over vodka I made into cucumber vodka by soaking sliced of cucumber in the glass for a few days before using it up. The extra svart vin I used to make a great wine glaze on a nice piece of chicken.

Group Meetings…some questions at the end

The first work meeting in a new place is always a crap shoot. You don’t really know what to expect and what is expected of you.

In Academia, and by that I mean science academia, the group meeting is sacred. Basically every group has one no matter how big or how small. The two groups I belonged to in graduate school had over 30 people but very different styles of group meeting.

One had main group meetings one evening a week where general topics were discussed, one quarter it was overviews of the group’s work for new students, then practice talks for the research proposal we did in the 4th year, then practice talks for qualifying exams done in the 2nd year, and then special topic talks in the summer. Then we also had subgroup meetings where in my super-subgroup we met during lunch one day a week and someone gave a PowerPoint presentation about what they were currently working on.

In the other group we basically had the same kind of group meeting as the subgroup meeting in the first group, once a week in the middle of the afternoon.

The longer I was in graduate school the less often some of these group meetings were useful and the more inconvenient some of the times became. Since both of my bosses traveled often and we had group meetings even when they didn’t attend there was often a huge descrepency between attitudes at different group meetings. I began to think about what kind of group meetings would be useful for me, what if I was the boss what would I want then?

My new group is only 4 people including me and my professor. This morning we had our first group meeting since I arrived in Sweden. We had a discussion about people’s upcoming travel schedules for the holidays, upcoming seminars that would be useful, allocation of group resources, when we should meet next, an new open position in the group, and then one of the graduate student’s summarized his 4 projects on the board. We discussed what the overarching goals were, what he was seeing so far, and where he was struggling. This group meeting was much more useful for me….now I wonder how you could implement something similar for a larger group of people.

I think one way would be to have one kind of group meeting where people give prepared talks on a single story in their research (like with PowerPoint) to practice this skill and then other meetings that are more about problem solving and group dynamics/scheduling. What kind of meetings are most useful to your personal work? and if you are a manager what kind are most useful to the running of the group?