Enough Mixers Already.

Figure 1.  The Mixer is a ubiquitous feature of academia's social scene, but they can be complicated for a number of reasons.  Photo Credit: Fotokannan, via Wikipedia.
Figure 1. The Mixer is a ubiquitous feature of academia’s social scene, but they can be complicated for a number of reasons. Photo Credit: Fotokannan, via Wikipedia.

You’re at a University, you want people to hang out, what do you do?


If you’re on a moderately large University campus it’s probably pretty likely that you could hit one or two departmental or institutional mixers a week.  Maybe more if you’re lucky and plugged in to the right group of people.  If you can hit them up relatively frequently then you can relax and socialize with a group of peers, or senior researchers, you can make connections, build informal bonds and, eventually build more social capital with which to establish research collaborations in the long term.  We know mixers are good.  drmellivora exhorts us to go to them on Tenure She Wrote. Every conference, department, and university has them. They must be good to go to. . .

But what if you can’t?  How many times do you need to find a babysitter, or ask your partner to look after the kids so that you can go to a mixer?  And if you can’t, consistently, are you squandering social capital?  A lot has been made about trying to find work-life balance, but extra-curricular mixers live outside of the explicit realm of ‘work’, and yet they can strongly influence work outcomes.

John Hopkins University runs a successful Belgian Beer Mixer that is clearly providing benefits to the university and to the researchers who participate, bringing researchers across disciplines together in an informal and relaxed environment, but we have to assume that these mixers aren’t accommodating everyone.  It far easier to indicate and be assertive about scheduling conflicts during work hours, and people are more accommodating about finding suitable times.  Extra-curricular socialization is much harder to confront.  It winds up being an invisible ‘pass’.  There’s no re-scheduling until after the kids go to sleep, most people head over after work and leave before dinner.  There’s no re-scheduling until later in the week because your kids live with you every day of the week (which they make up for with unconditional love). And it’s not just kids, there are hundreds of reasons why people have to take a soft pass at mixers, and most of them don’t involve an unwillingness to make new connections.

Webb and Bartlein (1993) talk about the benefits of hanging out on the University of Wisconsin’s Terrace drinking beer to the team cohesion of the COHMAP project, and it was pointed out in a recent Science of Team Science (SciTS) listserv posting that Stokols et al (2008) also suggest informal social events to build camaraderie  among individuals to help foster team science.  But in Cheruvelil et al (2014) we point out that one of the first steps to building effective teams is to focus on social sensitivity and emotional engagement. Granted this is in the context of existing projects, but mixers, in the half-shadow of work, are not always the best places to support social sensitivity. Mixers can often be a source of social conflict, and some people may avoid going to them for that reason alone.

Surely there are more ways to bring people together in a semi-formal context that aren’t outside of work hours.  I mean, are mixers really just another way to make us work more?  If we were lawyers we’d definitely be billing, right?  And does it have to involve drinking?  I mean, drinking is such a part of the culture of ecology (for example) that Jeremy Fox makes his dichotomy cheap vs non-cheap beer, and, for someone like me who is equally at home in the Earth Sciences, well, forgetaboutit. WIRED’s article “Why Geologists Love Beer” from the 2009 AGU meeting begins: “Fact: Geologists love beer.”

So what about alternatives to the ever-present Mixer?  Organized, but informal lunches?  Potlucks are always a bit dangerous, but organized brown bag lunches with some focal theme can get people sitting with new neighbors, and possibly building new relationships.  They’re also more accessible since you can schedule them at different times of the day, and people are already at work, plus having the department pitch in for free food is always a good way to get every graduate student to come.

What sorts of suggestions do you have?  What’s been successful in your department, or at a conference/workshop that you’ve attended?  I’d love to hear suggestions.

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Assistant scientist in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Studying paleoecology and the challenges of large data synthesis.

10 thoughts on “Enough Mixers Already.”

  1. I like our lunchtime seminars. It’s slighly more sciency than a mixture, but that’s good thing during working hours. It always sparks good discussions and keeps you involved with the study subject and expertise of your lab.

    1. I agree, I think that slightly informal seminars are great. The kind that can devolve into a general conversation around a directed topic often can bring people together in a way that more formal lectures can’t.

  2. Thanks for this post. You raise a lot of really great points, and I think there needs to be a diversity of events. At my university, we have almost zero mixers because everyone has kids, and Maine doesn’t have the same drinking culture other states have. But that makes it hard for young, childless faculty like me to interact and make friends. We’re trying to find a happy medium by hosting out department socials at a place that’s kid-friendly AND has beer. But as you say, what about people who don’t drink? There’s a lot of pressure to drink, especially in fields where there’s a big drinking culture.

    One problem with events during work hours is that they inevitably clash with teaching schedules. Most of the during-the-day events I see are sparsely attended. I’ve had luck instigating small, targeted get-togethers like women-in-science lunches, but those aren’t necessarily bringing new people together or encouraging serendipitous interactions.

    So, what’s thevsolution? Having more/diverse socializing opportunities? Making mixers more family-friendly? As frustrating as mixers may be, I can’t think of anything I experienced that was as successful. In grad school, potlucks were usually a disaster (no one had time to cook real food). My university won’t allow us to pay for food unless there’s an official business meeting, plus university catering (sometimes mandated) is often exhorbitantly expensive. I’ll be following the comments to see other peoples’ ideas!

    1. I really like the idea of targeted get-togethers, and think that a university’s research office could probably find a way to bring researchers from across campus together. Anatoliy Gruzd has a really cool application called rDmap, basically a network map that shows how researchers are related across a set of themes. The idea is that we can build networks of researchers to find links that haven’t been exploited, and maybe target them for targeted get-togethers to help build existing, but unexploited links.

  3. At UCL, the ECRC had a lunchtime seminar on a Thursday weekly, and that was the night for the informal drinks at the local pub from 5pm (or earlier given sufficient [ok not that much] persuasion). It was telling that many of those with young families would not attend the pub or had to down a quick pint before rushing off to get the train. I appreciated this all the more once my first child was born. Just as useful were the daily coffee runs upstairs, and later across the quad, but again only a core group attended regularly. Hence, that group tended to be seen as a bit of a clique; we worked together on env problems in upland/remote lakes.

    At URegina we moved our seminar series 30 minutes earlier to accommodate child care arrangements for a member of faculty, and with the exception of labs, no teaching takes place from 2:30pm on on a Friday in Biology to encourage attendance from students & staff. We’ve started having a social after 3-4 of the seminars each semester, starting around 3:30-ish. These have been well attended and being organised by someone that has a taste for good beer, and someone with a taste for good wine, we are well-catered for in the alcohol side of things (there are soft drinks too).

    Despite the success of these socials, they are insufficiently frequent. That’s why one of the things I’m going to be getting going this semester is a monthly coffee hour plus seminar, where we’ll lay on coffee/tea and snacks & space for people to meet & chat ahead of a short seminar/research talk by a grad student or whoever. I’ll let you know how that goes!

    1. That sounds great Gavin. At Simon Fraser University the Biological Sciences department had regular ‘Pay Day Coffee’ breaks, which were lots of fun and a good Friday break. I think one of the things the seminars and coffee breaks miss though is the potential for interdisciplinary connections that some of the more open mixers can generate.

  4. Great post, thanks. At my university, the young faculty mentoring sessions are always in the evening. Not only is this problematic for the same reasons you outline for mixers, but it indicates that mentoring really isn’t that important to the senior faculty organizers–they are unwilling to make time for it in their work week and consider it to be outside of their ‘real’ responsibilities.

    1. This is a great point. There’s often a set of ‘required’ duties that get shifted to this after-work period. It’s the same with summer duties on a 9 month salary. Are they mandatory? Of course. Are they paid? Ostensibly no, but they’re an accepted part of academic life.

  5. At Stockholm Resilience Centre we have regular speed talk session (4 min X ~8-10 talks). Allow people to introduce research, courses, report on workshops, as well as other social events. This is academic but provides space for non research stuff, and allows a big diversity of topics to be introduced, it also gets everyone who is present in the same place once a week – which provides platform for informal + more formal meetings.

    These have worked great for us, but are not only thing we have going on.

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