Join me in congratulating myself

How does your lab / department / institute recognise milestones such as papers, presentations, grants and fellowships? Do you think there’s any association with how social your department is ?
This question was asked some time ago by Cath in one of her posts.
Over the past twenty-plus years, I have been a graduate student, postdoctoral associate and faculty member in five different physics departments in North America, and to different degrees I have always seen an effort, on the part of departments, to provide some formal acknowledgment of significant achievements of its members, i.e., faculty, postdocs and students.

In my days at FSU, the departmental newsletter was the place where I, a graduate student, would read about professors publishing an important piece of research work on some prestigious journal, being awarded prizes, or becoming fellows of the APS or other professional societies. Those were the days before the internet, and therefore the departmental newsletter was almost exclusively printed for internal consumption.
I remember reading it eagerly, and being impressed, actually feeling good when finding out that a graduate student in some other group had moved on to a high profile postdoctoral position, or that a faculty member had made national (scientific) headlines, or even that an ongoing research effort had yielded some notable results.
It gave me a sense that the place was striving for excellence, and that there was a concerted attempt to convey to students the notion that it was not just them and their own advisors, that the whole department had a stake and an interest in their success [0].

As electronic mail gained acceptance, and the world wide web made its appearance, it became easier for department chairs to inform the outside world as well, of notable accomplishments by a member of the department. Obviously, that serves the purpose of showcasing the place to prospective students, postdocs and faculty members. We all aspire to be working at a place where stuff happens, visited by prominent scientists, where cutting edge research is done.
I do not think that that really reflects the sociability of a department. I am more inclined to believe that it is simply one of the many actions that institutions take these days to increase their visibility to the outside world, to the community within which they operate.

But I think it is actually important for a department, to make a studious effort to recognize accomplishments of its own members for the sake of its own internal dynamics as well. Of course, scientists are usually sufficiently ambitious, self-motivated and driven individuals, that by the time their work has made it to the pages of a high impact journal, warranted invited speaking presentations at prominent conferences, received accolades from the world-wide scientific community (the only one with which any serious scientist will deem worth confronting herself), the praises of departmental colleagues, welcome as they always, undoubtedly are, will constitute only a modest additional reward.

But that is not the point.
Publicly praising a successful department member can serve a more “subliminal” goal as well, one that I have come to regard as quite important of late, namely that of setting the departmental bar for success. By selecting specific accomplishments upon which to report or comment, by applauding some initiatives or activities over others, by encouraging the rest of the department to congratulate some for what they attained over the past term, one makes a (relatively formal) statement, as to what should be regarded as remarkable, what constitutes an “achievement”, and ultimately what is expected of everyone in that place [1].
Internal awards, web pages, newsletters and so on, inevitably set the tone for the place as a whole. A department in which notable scientific results by its members are overlooked, as if they were of no interest, or even worse take a back seat to, oh, I don’t know, a faculty running for city council or a postdoc playing in a band, has its priorities seriously out of whack, ultimately sending the wrong message to its people and those outside.


[0] Of course, those were also the days when a doctoral defense was a departmental event, attended by all faculty, students and postdocs.

[1] Obviously that is different depending on whether one is talking about a faculty, a postdoc or a graduate student. A faculty taking on some important administrative responsibility with a major scientific organization is surely something worth praising; on the other hand, graduate students and postdocs should be constantly reminded to focus on what will most largely influence their professional future, namely research.

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3 Responses to “Join me in congratulating myself”

  1. Ian Says:

    In my experience all worthy celebrations are accompanied by beers at the campus pub.

  2. Schlupp Says:

    OK, less that 20 years, but 4 places:

    – One was quite social (in the sense of drinking beer together and stuff), but made no effort whatsoever to recognize milestones. Sure, on a *personal* level, one person might say “well done” to another, but even that was not too common. The only half-exception were defenses, when it was common for people to take note.

    – The other three did/do make such efforts, with varying degrees of success, of course. And are also social to varying degrees. The only times “band playing” gets more exposure than research are when administration is involved.

    So much for the data. As for the interpretation: Yes, that setting of the tone is also why I think these things make sense. Only, I am not sure how to distinguish this aspect from the “additional reward” one. To me, they seem very closely related, with the only difference that it is “reward” when it is directly about me and “setting the tone” when it is about someone else.

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