On Boundaries in Research Groups

This is a posts that I kept remembering to sit down and write, only to forget yet again. I was reminded of it as I read this post by mathbionerd, to which I arrived somehow by tracking the good news that Dr Becca of Scientopia and Twitter fame had indeed been approved for tenure — congrats to Dr Becca!

The post is about boundaries between the PI and the graduate students/postdocs in a research group.

I have junior colleagues who meet with students at all hours, so 6-11 pm or weekends are not off limits.
Many PIs seem to have their group over for barbecue or holiday celebrations. Some PI take their groups to camping trips. Recently, I found out that the members of one research group are all expected to participate in certain 5k races, which really didn’t sit well with me.

In my view, any activity that is organized by the PI is not truly voluntary for students. There is always a power differential, and a student may feel like they have to attend even though they rather wouldn’t. For instance, late afternoon/evening/weekend meetings with the PI would have been a deal breaker for me in grad school as I had a kid in daycare; mandatory participation in activities like running 5k races isn’t everyone’s cup of tea or withing everyone’s physical abilities, and seems unfair to expect people to do.

Therefore, my students know (we have a document on the group website delineating what I expect and what they can expect from me) that I will not require their presence outside of 9-5 M-F. No late meetings or weekend meetings. When someone is about to leave the group, we go out to lunch during the week, somewhere close to work and I pay for everyone. I occasionally order pizza for the group for minor celebrations (again, during the week, and I pay). No one from my group has ever been to my house and I don’t see why that would be necessary. I don’t want to put the students in a situation where they have to do something they don’t want to because they think I might be upset if they refuse, even if I most definitely wouldn’t be. Our relationship is professional and as such benefits from solid boundaries between personal time and work time.

I would be delighted if my students all hung out without me, and I think there are some nice friendships in the group, but it’s all student-led and I have nothing to do with it. Maybe bonding experiences, like group barbecues and hikes and races, do really contribute to bonding, but this potential benefit is overshadowed (for me) by not wanting to impose on the group member’s personal time. Also, I certainly don’t expect them to spend their own money on the activities I require and they aren’t 100% free to refuse, such as the aforementioned lunches to say farewell to a group member.

I know that, once people join the “real world” they will likely have company retreats and perhaps intrusive managers who won’t respect personal time, which I think is all the more reason for me to be nonintrusive.

Dear readers, what is your attitude on group activities or other meetings requiring one’s presence outside of regular work hours?


  1. I’m a little split. I love what mathbionerd has said about faculty having to take on a new role with different power dynamics – and that requiring some boundaries. And I agree that meetings with students outside of 9-5 can be unprofessional*, and that many “social” requests can actually be coercive (the only way I’d participate in a group 5k is if I was desperately afraid of getting kicked out!).

    But I’ve seen the other extreme of this, too. I think I shared one meal with my thesis advisor over six years, and I have very little idea of what he is like as a person outside of work. The absence of some of these group bonding exercises also sends a message. Unfortunately, it is not always clear whether that message is “We are all professionals, and our interactions are about science,” or “I view you as a replaceable cog.” I was happy in my grad position (and didn’t think I was a cog!), but I can imagine other people feeling lonely or neglected.

    *One professor I knew would regularly hold late-evening hours-long one-on-one meetings with students, which some of the students were absolutely in favor of. I cannot imagine it, and it certainly selects for certain students.

  2. I’m young, and by can’t help but be gregarious, friendly and casual with students… so I am trying to counter balance that with professionalism by essentially asking students to be organized with their time and mindful of mine. I use google calendar and email a lot and my research students have been very good about not bugging me outside of 9-5. Students in my classes… not always quite so respectful lol.

    As for social gatherings… I liked how my thesis adviser had us over to his place on occasion for a BBQ, etc. However, I probably wouldn’t do it. I do only have undergrads and that’s different, but I just… feel like it would be too intimate somehow even with grads. Maybe after I go grey… I do have lunches for students who are leaving – especially student volunteers! I like meeting my students on neutral ground (campus or nearby) where we are all comfortable.

  3. I think the issue is one of social interactions rather than of time. My students and I have occasionally worked late, but that is only in situations when I “call crisis” (for example, the grant is due tomorrow and the data has a problem). I have a deal with my students – which is that I encourage them to go home at a normal time but that when I “call crisis” then we all stay late. The deal is not to call crisis unless it is really necessary. And, importantly, any work like that is wholly professional. We are not “chatting” or “hanging out” – we are working. OK – that addresses time issues, but that’s not what your post or discussion is about.

    The real issue is whether the captain socializes with the crew. The problem is, as you note, the unspoken power dynamic. I think it’s important to maintain a professional relationship, which means that one has to tread very carefully with a social dynamic. (And the fact that many businesses get that wrong does not mean we should.) Sometimes, I really wish that I socialized more with my students, but I am worried how it would affect my ability to teach them, which occasionally requires me getting tough with them. It’s very hard to fire a friend or even to tell them that they’re slacking off and need to work harder.

    I certainly think it is inappropriate to require lab members to participate in social activities. What if someone doesn’t like running? What if someone can’t go on a camping retreat because they have a sick family member or other obligations? This is one of those situations where you can’t even ask, because some people will be scared to tell you no.

    My old advisor did used to have parties for outgoing students at their house, but they had a huge lab and there were so many students and former students and colleagues coming to the party that it was very not awkward at all. (And no one would care if you decided not to go.) We tried to have parties in the early days of my lab, but my lab was too small and it got awkward and we stopped.

    In my experience, this is a very sharp split across generations. I know lots of older faculty who would often have students meeting them late, sometimes including wine and food. (I am working on the assumption that these were all above board, which is how they were described to me by those professors’ former students.) I could never imagine such an interaction in this day and age. And I would never socially interact with a student in a class. Absolutely not. That’s just asking for trouble.

  4. I feel a little guilty because I do not have group BBQs, etc, and am not a “friend” to my group members. I had an advisor that made us go to her house for scotch tastings (?!) and other awkward events. I got to know her well socially and ended up not liking her. I do not want to force social gatherings on my students because I don’t want the invitation to feel like an obligation. But, again, I have a bit of regret.

  5. I’m trying to decide how different, if at all, the liberal arts environment makes this balance. On the one hand, our department is tiny, with four faculty and an average of four majors and 2 masters students graduating each year. We all get to know each other whether we like it or not, and personal/professional boundaries are naturally a little blurrier — that’s part of being at a liberal arts college, and most of the time it’s a benefit for the students, I think. That said, it makes keeping those professional boundaries more difficult at times. There are some students with whom I have to be more firm than I am comfortable to keep them from violating the boundaries I set on my time. I have only invited students over to my house a couple of times and it was super-awkward so I stopped doing it. But, I really like the all-department barbeques/picnics that two of my colleagues host every year — that, and our annual holiday party are nice opportunities for the department to get together in an informal way. But since the whole department is invited, I don’t think it makes it too onerous/uncomfortable/pressured for any one person to decide whether or not to attend. And I do like hosting occasional group lunches, especially when someone is leaving or a collaborator is visiting.

    I think my principles would read something like this:
    – It’s important to get to know your students as people (and not just brains)
    – It’s important for your students to know a little bit about you as a person (and not just a brain)
    – It’s important to make sure students know and respect your time and personal boundaries
    – It’s important to make sure that you don’t require students to do things that violate their right to have personal time/boundaries.

    There are lots of ways to do that, but I think xyk’s scheme sounds like it accomplishes all of the important bullet points. Our department’s is maybe a little bit different in the details, but not the overarching principles.

  6. I no longer have a research group, but when I did I did not have social outings with them. We often chatted informally on campus. I do frequently host “bread and tea” events on campus, some of which have turned into wine tastings, but those are open to all students, faculty, and staff in the department, with no one “expected” to show up. (I generally get about 5–10% of the possible attendees, with 2–3 times that when a student announces an associated wine tasting.)

    I don’t do the 9–5 stuff though, and few of my students keep those hours. Noon–8pm is more compatible both with my hours and with my students’ schedules. I have frequently responded within minutes to student email sent to me after midnight. (My son, a college senior, has an even more extreme sleep schedule—he has been getting up around 4pm and going to bed around 5am this summer.)

  7. I agree 100% with you. There is no way to avoid the fact that group social outings will be perceived by some as coerced and therefore can never be truly voluntary. I tell my students I am present 8:30-5 on weekdays, and that 5-8 pm is reserved for family unless there is a true emergency or by prior arrangement. I expect them to be present for some overlap between 8:30 and 5, but most of my students work time shifted from me, and come in around 10. I take out the group for lunch on a weekday when someone leaves (I pay).

    More thoughts here: http://theprodigalacademic.blogspot.com/2016/07/socializing-with-group-members.html

  8. I too am the same way. The only socialization we do is an annual group lunch after our big annual conference deadline, which is done within office hours on a weekday. Due to childcare constraints I am only on campus 8-4pm anyways, so all physical meetings are also within these hours.

    There are a few work-related exceptions. When there is a big deadline, I have sometimes had skype calls with my students outside office hours. Once when a student was interviewing for jobs, he did a practice job talk late evening (my time) via skype. On rare occasions, I have also met with my students at a coffee shop instead of my office. For example, when I was on maternity leave, I did not want to come in to campus (to avoid being given extra service), and occasionally asked my students to meet me at a coffee shop instead.

  9. I think gender plays a huge role here, more so than a generational divide. Women are more likely to see (or have experienced) potential problems with not-quite-voluntary social events. I sure have. And then female profs, esp those with kids, are not exactly in the best position to entertain outside of business hours, or god forbid invite people over. I have really fond memories of being invited to many potlucks and parties at professors’ houses when I was a student, and my professor dad always had parties for his students when I was a kid. But all those profs had wives who helped entertain and served as de facto chaperones.

  10. Forced social outings are excruciating. Making students and postdocs feel as if they have to attend is unfair on them and their families.

    Having said that, I am a PI among a large group comprising several PIs with their students, postdocs, technical staff. Unique among the senior members of our group, I am very extroverted and genuinely social. Mr Shrew Harpy and I are happy to entertain strays and students at our home, and our enjoyment is communicated to our colleagues, resulting in non-awkward gatherings involving not just my colleagues but also my friends outside work. The most shy and least socially adapted colleagues seem to value these social occasions even more than others. These gatherings involve family members and are not explicitly work-oriented but often result in work-related conversations and new projects and a relaxed atmosphere in which people feel free to express half-baked ideas.

    If too much time elapses without my organizing something, colleagues ask me when I’m next inviting people over.

    I’ve experienced plenty of awkward gatherings as a postdoc and think I recognize the difference between then and now. Those of us who can put together something people look forward to enjoying should relish it without making any of the less sociable people feel like they have to attend or that they’re missing out by not attending. I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all here but those of us who have the gift should enjoy it and share with others!

  11. I agree with almost everything you have said here. I tend to keep traditional work hours unless, like an earlier commenter, I have a “crisis situation” and then I try to make them as easy as possible. E.g., once we had to have a Saturday data meeting to meet a deadline because not everyone was free during the week so I ordered pizza, coffee, and donuts. I have – a few times – allowed students to meet with me at my home but mostly because I was on leave and even then I do not equally allow all students this privilege. Maybe that makes me a jerk, but I’m in general really particular about who gets to be in my physical space.

    I think there is an aspect for me that is missing from your post: I don’t *want* to socialize with my lab. If I’m socializing with them, it’s actually just more work. Not only would I never know if they were there by choice (because of the power differential you identified) but I want to spend my down time with my friends and family. Early on in my career I really wanted to be the kind of lab that hung out together and enjoyed each other’s company and we tried (with some success). But some students who were clearly doing it out of obligation ruined it for the rest of us. And as I got settled here, made friends, and got a life outside of work I no longer wanted to have work permeate my “social” time. I also never really felt comfortable with the emphasis on drinking that most social outings here seem to have.

    Plus the other thing….. I just can’t afford the lab outings that some of my colleagues seem to be able to. I’ll take students out 1:1 to celebrate a special milestone. I can possibly swing pizza, but there is no way I can afford to take the whole lab out for lunch or dinner.

    Also, mandatory 5Ks? WTF?

  12. I am an extrovert, but still hate organized socializing with people from work (students or faculty). It is forced and pointless. I also run, but mandatory races still sound like cruel and unusual punishment. Geez!
    My former advisors all had us at their houses for BBQ and stuff, and I have done it with my group before, but I much prefer an occasional group lunch or dinner when somebody leaves (and, yes, I also pay for everyone).

  13. I’m a PostDoc and my current advisor has the group over at his place for grad student farewell parties, so 1-2 times a year. We also do a group retreat once a year, during work time. He invites everyone all the way to undergrad research assistants, with partners and children, and the parties are usually quite fun. And with partners and children we are so many people it doesn’t matter if someone does not feel like joining.

    I can also see that it really helps younger students to see the human in him – he is usually perceived as a dry man with control freak tendencies. I know, because the students come to me to vent 🙂 Talking to him about something other than why a project is not progressing at the expected rate can greatly improve student-advisor relations and the overall atmosphere in the group. But of course he never has time for this during work hours, so the parties are important.

    The previous advisor never held parties, but insisted that the group takes lunches and afternoon coffee together. It was a small and very welcoming group, I really enjoyed my time there.

  14. My grad advisor had parties occasionally at her house (with her husband, who was also a professor who had a research group). These were generally enjoyable… sometimes they felt like a “social obligation”… but no more than a lot of other events one gets invited to. Sometimes they were a lot of fun, sometimes less so, but overall a good thing. We would also go out to lunch or after work drinks (happy hour) on occasion, always with beer. These occasions were almost always enjoyable.

    Almost all of the other groups I knew did the same thing. I’m actually surprised at all the responses in this thread saying they do not organize any social gatherings with their group.

    I am part of a larger group, and we host parties for the group probably twice a year at our house. The group is big, and although we obviously want people to come, they don’t have to, and some choose not to, which is fine. A couple of the parties have been more awkward, a couple have been really great, and a couple somewhere in the middle. I think the students generally enjoy them and overall it has helped develop a communal culture. And I think it’s nice to meet spouses/significant others/children/etc. We also go out for lunch maybe twice a year, usually to celebrate someone leaving the group.

  15. I like socializing with my group. All my previous PIs did and there was rarely anything forced about the gatherings. We usually had a good time. I like to think of my group members as partners with shared goals rather than employees, so there is perhaps less of a fear of becoming friendly. For this to work you also need to make certain choices when hiring, i.e. not hire people who are very awkward or reclusive. The plus side is that people are really friendly with one another and more likely to help one another with the science. That said I know a PI who is a total d*ckhead and makes everybody go to these social events which people don’t enjoy because they simply don’t like him as a person. I hope I am not just deluding myself that people generally enjoy having me around.

  16. Interesting topic!

    One lab that I trained in frequently had social events at the PI’s home, but they weren’t much fun – things like poker parties where he would try to get people to bet and lose more money than they wanted to, or “parties” to help the PI with his garden or house painting chores (ugh). I went to most events even though I didn’t want to since that PI definitely favored students and postdocs who participated. We also had frequent lab nights at a local bar which you couldn’t avoid but which were a nightmare and involved him getting slightly drunk and then trying to get the whole lab to gang up and joke-insult the students who were reserved, minorities, religious, or women –lab members who were different than most. It was extremely uncomfortable.

    When I started my own lab, I hosted frequent lab and departmental parties at my home but it was a ton of work since I had small children and also very expensive and the cleanup was also a nightmare. Also there were a couple of problems with doing this:
    1) it led to a weird work dynamic where the students viewed me too much as “mom” and not enough like their PI/program director. I think seeing me in the setting of my home cooking and hosting and dealing with my little kids changed their impression of me.
    2) I was hoping that my hosting such parties might also lead to more friendly relations with the other faculty and their wives, but this didn’t happen either. It was rare that any other faculty (mostly men) would show up to these parties. It wasn’t much fun hosting all the students on my own, and I also started to feel like an idiot for wasting my time hosting the departmental party if no other faculty cared about it.

    Now, after 25 years here, I just take my entire lab out to lunch at a nice restaurant a couple times a year, usually on a Monday during the work week, and I pay for the whole thing. It’s cheaper than hosting something at my home and much simpler, plus I don’t end up undermining my authority as the boss by appearing in a domestic setting.

    I’ve also given up making friends among the faculty and their wives here and instead I just focus on interacting with the few who are useful scientific collaborators. It’s a weird vibe and not what I anticipated in this career. I believe it’s because I’m a woman faculty member – I don’t fit in with these guys and they’re scared/don’t know how to interact with me except in an unambiguously professional context. I also thought their wives would be more friendly but we apparently don’t have much in common or else they find me threatening or something.

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