Can you change the culture?

Nov 14 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

There's a new blogger (and potential member of the Society for blogs with Damn in their name) on the webs, PhDamned. You should go over and say hi, but I wanted to talk about something that she brings up in a post about faculty participation, because it echoes something that I've had bouncing around in my head for a bit.

Is it possible to change the culture of a department and how would one go about it?

In all honesty, I'm not thrilled about the science culture where I am at. The mentality is very 9-5 and this place is a ghost town on weekends and after about 3:00 on Fridays. I'm not advocating for around the clock work or people chained to their desks, only that a few people feel passionate about their work enough to work outside of the bare minimum hours. It's also not that I care what the other faculty members are doing, but the problem that PhDamned articulates from a student perspective, is that the attitude of the faculty is reflected in the students. So, when faculty never come in on weekends, after hours or on holidays, the students assume that there is no point to doing so. The same is true for after hours events.

Obviously, just because someone is not in their office doesn't mean they are not working, but you can tell when a department has an active and vibrant community and when it doesn't. You can feel it the same way that you can go to any sporting event anywhere in the world and gauge how much the team means to the fans - how invested they are in the teams success. It's not that my department doesn't have a good research track record, only that the sense of a vibrant research community just isn't there like I have seen it elsewhere.

So, is it possible to change this? More specifically, is it possible for a junior faculty member to change this? If so, how? Doing things by example is great, unless no one is there to see it.

16 responses so far

  • Professor in Training says:

    I have noticed a definite shift in the culture since I joined the dept. Several of the clinical faculty were convinced that the low student numbers and lack of enthusiasm from the tenured faculty would lead to the demise of the program. I had lunch with a couple of them this week and they are overwhelmed but thrilled at the news that applications for the 2010 undergrad intake are already 3X what they were last year ... and the deadline for applying isn't for another 4 months!We have been discussing ways in which we can accommodate the massive increase in student numbers and how we can maximize their exposure to both clinical and basic research (something that hasn't even been considered in the past). The student club I advise has also taken off this year and have been busy promoting both themselves and our program - this is the first time in the dept's history that we have our own line of clothing and advertising material, and the students have been busy organizing campus events that have been receiving huge kudos from the administrative bigwigs. Several of the clinical faculty have said that this is all a direct effect of me joining the dept because I brought a fresh approach to student learning that had been lacking in the past and that I don't have the overblown ego that they have typically experienced with TT faculty.This has all put a hell of a lot of pressure on my reconstructed shoulders but if it pulls the dept out of a downward spiral and brings in more bright and motivated students then it will have been worth the effort.

  • biochem belle says:

    I am very much struggling with this issue in my postdoc lab and department. Similar to what you describe, they have a good research track record (in terms of funding and publishing). But the enthusiasm, collegiality, and vibrancy are missing. It's difficult to remain intellectually engaged when no one else seems to be.

  • DamnGoodTechnician says:

    It seems like a chicken-and-egg problem - are the professors 9-to-5-ing it because they don't feel the students are invested, or vice versa? I'm not sure how you'd go about making that change - it's equally sucky to work in a lab where the professor is there all weekend and you feel guilty if you're not there too.Something surprising I found at PharmLand is that despite a strong 9-to-5 culture, the enthusiasm and commitment of the people there is stunning. I appreciate that this is a different issue than you're dealing with (9-to-4:55 and largely disinterested).

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    PiT - That's great. It sounds like a lot of your hard work is paying off. We have a pretty active undergrad coordinator though, and a ridiculous number of majors. My concern is more with the grad students and the faculty. There just doesn't seem to be much of a research community. Perhaps that will change as things are reorganized at the grad level. BB - It's certainly hard when you've come from a great environment and you know what you are missing. DGT - I don't think the profs are taking a cue from the students. In fact, I don't think they are thinking about them at all in reference to some of the things they do. I think you can get a good community even with a 9-5 crowd, we just don't have it.

  • Alyssa says:

    I'm all for a 9-5 work environment, but I hear what you're saying about it not being a good community. Our department has the same problem, and there are rumors going around that some blame the current department head (who will be leaving next summer). The hope is the new head will change the atmosphere in the department, because if it doesn't get better then more will leave.

  • PhDamned says:

    Thanks PLS-I really appreciate you mentioning my blog on yours!I think that maybe there's a critical mass of social people/interactions that you have to reach to maintain a sense of community. On a related note, many discussions in informal settings with fellow grad students/postdocs have led my research to explore new avenues that I wouldn't have thought of had I only interacted with my labmates. I'm surprised that a sense of community isn't valued more since it usually leads to nothing but good things: a more pleasant work environment, collaboration and, most likely, a more productive department.

  • The Littlest Professor says:

    I thought that I was in the only institution with a lack of a research culture. I have no idea whether I should be happy that I'm not alone in this boat or horrified that more places like this exist. I do believe that change is possible (I've heard of stories), but it's slow and starts with the young people being hired. I'm trying to change the culture at my place, but with just me alone, it's not really going anywhere. I'm hoping that our hiring freeze will be lifted soon.

  • Toaster Sunshine says:

    I'm currently trying to organize real-life, after-hours, informal Scientists' Duels to get people talking about cool science they might not otherwise see, and to compete for fun. So far no takers to challenge me for the first round. Shortly, after I've figured out a syllabus, I'm going to be waving it at the departmental chair for a seminar: Teaching Graybeards How to Use The Internet.

  • Arlenna says:

    That's a tough question PLS--because massive inertia and fear of changing habits is deep in the nature of faculty groups. Can you do something like invite exciting seminar speakers and arrange to have beer available for seminar receptions? That often brings people together, but on our campus we can't have beer. 🙁 Here's something that I think helps for us: Our seminar series is a requirement for the students (they get a grade for attendance and each have to present in their 2nd year), and the dept head pushes all the faculty to be there as often as possible too. So every week most of the dept. HAS to get together for an afternoon. We also have a very strong research active faculty and a great group of people with a funny collective sense of humor. And they at least listen when I talk, even if they don't always agree or do anything about what I say. So that helps.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    We're beer-free too. Something they did NOT tell me during the interview! We do have a weekly seminar that is well attended, but that doesn't really get people interacting. I think part of the problem is the diversity of research going on, making it hard for people to talk the same language sometimes, but my department is hardly unique there. There's just no "buzz" in the building, which is hard to quantify and impossible to force. Oh, and TLP, there are no solo ships and this community is a good place to find that out.

  • Genomic Repairman says:

    We have a no beer until 5pm and we have to have a licensed bartender. What a crock of shit. We work 8:30-5pm right now, but I use the evenings to study, read up on articles and write. My PI recommended this to us so that we don't burn out and its forcing us to become way more productive while at work. But I'm not above working a 14 hour day or coming in on the weekend as I usually do once a month.

  • Anonymous says:

    I'm in the **same** situation. I think that departmental cultures CAN change, but it takes everyone pulling in the same direction, and a lot of time. Given that much of my department doesn't think we have a problem, I'm not too hopeful. I'm doing what I can to change things wile looking for opportunities to move.Good luck!

  • Anonymous says:

    I'm yet another junior faculty member who is the **same** situation. I want desperately to be happy here, and am trying to do what I can. However, I am getting tired of it. Even getting people to go to a journal club or seminar is like pulling teeth. The students see that faculty skip, so they also think that the community and interaction aspects of science are unimportant. I am fortunate to have a strong group of junior faculty colleagues, but as we are learning it seems not everything can be fixed from the bottom up.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    I'm trying to start small and grow, in terms of fostering a good environment for students. A group of us have started a journal club that all of our labs go to. That has at least provided a small sense of community for a few labs. It's a start.My frustration is when I put a lot of effort into pulling off something larger that I try to make of broad appeal with input from different parties. When things like that are met with a shrug it makes it hard to find the motivation to do it again, even though that's the only way it will become part of the culture. As a grad student I started a departmental seminar series that still exists today but finding the energy to do things like that now, on top of everything else, is a lot.

  • Anonymous says:

    I think we should all get a life. Frankly, I don't believe that scientists should work nights, weekend, and holidays as a matter of course. It is not healthy, and I don't think it produces better science.And some of us "grey beards" do know how to use the Internet very well, thanks.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Again, I'm not advocating an around-the-clock work environment. I agree that is not healthy. However, I'm not sure a 9 - 4:55 culture sends the right message to grad students, particularly if faculty don't get involved in afternoon or after hours get togethers that can be important for informal mentoring. It's less about the hours and more about the feel of a place. How many really successful departments do you know that are dark outside of normal business hours?

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