Finding [or Building] a Community

Share This:



Special Feature

Finding [or Building] a Community

Tips For Improving The Culture Of Your Physics Department


Kendra Redmond, Society of Physics Students Programs Manager

Sometimes physics students feel isolated. Sometimes physics students are isolated. Whether due to department size, department culture, personal reasons, or other factors, the absence of camaraderie and support within any major can lead to students losing motivation, dropping out, and being at increased risk for depression and anxiety.

On the flip side, a cohesive, supportive department that fosters community can have exactly the opposite effect—it can draw in new majors, as well as people who will never consider a degree in physics but enjoy being a part of the group. A community of support can encourage struggling students and offer strength and rejuvenation when students experience “burnout.”

The culture of your physics department is important.

If your physics department culture is less than awesome...

Find community elsewhere

If you are having trouble finding students with whom to study and commiserate or faculty who can provide advice and encouragement in your department, seek support elsewhere! Going at physics and life alone makes both much more challenging.

Your physics department may be small, but the physics community is BIG—there is a whole world of physicists out there! Be active regionally, nationally, or globally by participating in summer internships and research experiences (great ways to bond with fellow physics students and expand your personal and professional networks). Attend SPS zone meetings and physics meetings hosted by other professional societies. Get online and visit places like the SPS Facebook group and the Sigma Pi Sigma LinkedIn group, where you can interact with other physics enthusiasts. Run for the SPS National Council. Contact SPS chapters at a nearby college and join in on their events.

Mentors can be an important source of support and networking. If you would like to get to know a certain faculty member in your department or another, take a chance and set up a meeting. Ask people who inspire you to tell you their stories—this could open the door to an ongoing mentoring relationship. Many schools, professional societies, and organizations have mentoring programs that pair students with professionals working in their desired field.

Also, recognize that you can and should be engaged in communities outside of physics. Often you will find like-minded thinkers in other departments. Joining a bowling league, church choir, or campus group can provide a much-needed break from the stresses of physics. Quality time with friends and family can help to place physics homework and exams in perspective and refresh the spirit. You might also consider volunteering for a community service program in your area.

If you feel too overwhelmed, burned out, or otherwise not up to the task of seeking out community, you might benefit from talking to a professional counselor or mentor. Although it may not be talked about very much, lots of us in the physics community have benefited from talking with trained professionals whose job it is to help people regain perspective and make life manageable—and even fun—again. See Dolores Cimini’s article on page 19 for more on what to expect from a counseling session.

Know that you are never out of options. Schools, majors, and research advisors can be changed, classes can be dropped, and career goals can be reassessed. Studying physics, or any other discipline, should not be done at the expense of your health and well-being.

Take steps to build community in your department

Often a strong department community starts with a small group of students (sometimes n = 1) who cause change. If your department does not have a student lounge or similar place where students collaborate on projects, study for exams, and hang out, establishing one is a great place to start. This effort may be as simple as announcing that anyone who wants to work on homework of any kind is welcome to do so in room x from 7 to 10 pm each night. You might also invite like-minded students or faculty members out for lunch and honest discussion about how to improve the culture of the department.

For other community-building ideas, check out the Back to School feature in the Summer 2013 issue of The SPS Observer,
summer.html. //

If your physics department culture is awesome...

Consider who is being left out

If your physics department is vibrant, supportive, and a great place to be a student, be thankful! Then take a few minutes to consider whether everyone is experiencing that same feeling of belonging. Are first-year students welcomed into the department? Are international students, minority students, and women feeling included? Is there anyone on the outskirts of the department that might benefit from a personal invitation to your next event or study session? Are there graduate students, postdocs, or faculty members who might like to be more engaged?

If there are people on the outside, consider how to make your group more inviting. Maybe you need to replace screen savers on the physics lounge computers featuring scantily clad models with something else. (Trust me, if you have screen savers like this you NEED to replace them, even if they make people laugh.) Maybe you need to cosponsor an event with a minority group on campus, host a lunch for first-year students, or invite a new faculty member to give a talk at an SPS meeting. Maybe you need to order a veggie lover’s pizza and one fewer meat lover’s pizzas. The point is, do it!

Help sustain the culture

Just because your department has a great culture right now doesn't mean that it always will. An inclusive, supportive culture is the result of hard work, whether visible or not, and if new leaders don't emerge it will fade away. So pay attention to who is being left out and do something about it. Take on leadership roles, official or unofficial, and encourage the students coming after you to continue your positive traditions.

Departments are unique places in that their constituents change over almost completely every four years. The students who lead the SPS meetings and do the research in your department today will not even be memories for the students who are there five years from now. That is why it is so important to welcome incoming students and help them become enthusiastic, contributing members of your department that can carry on the legacy of inclusivity. Consider this important role as a mentor for younger students in the department to be one of your top priorities. One of the most important ways of sustaining a positive environment is to pass on traditions and customs to incoming students. //


More from this department

Special Feature