University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy


Grad Phi helping students with work/life balance

Grad Phi Officers
Grad Phi officers: D'ann Barker, Yusuf Buyukdag, Peter Hansen, Santosh Adhikai, Chris Conklin

Chris Conklin, past coordinator for Grad Phi says he joined the organization to help other students with work and life balance. Conklin, a fourth year student working with Professor Jorge Vinals on liquid crystals, felt he had a good support system. "I felt like there were people who don’t have that and I wanted to contribute."

In the past, Grad Phi has placed an emphasis on social events. That is still an important function of the organization, but recently they’ve branched out to try to increase the amount of interaction between first year students and more senior students. "The first years tend to stick together," Conklin says, "There’s a lot information loss there because the senior students already know how to survive grad school." Grad Phi encourages senior students to go to a social event prior to the Intro to Research Seminar, which all the first-years are required to attend. Conklin says the events have been successful at connecting first years with third and fourth year students. "We’ve been having the grad students from the research group of whomever is speaking that day make sure they are present to meet with first years. They can talk about what it is really like to work in their lab."

Conklin and the group’s five officers felt it was also important that all graduate students were aware of the School’s resources for students facing difficult issues such as sexual harassment. "We’ve done a lot of work about making sure there’s good advocacy within the school. We’ve been on different committees to work toward this. There have always been resources, but we want to make sure that it’s communicated to the students." This led to an open meeting on the topic of harassment that was held in the wake of the Jeffrey Marcy scandal at Berkeley. Conklin says the meeting was really the first step in opening up an on-going discussion on the issue.
"There were people with a variety of views and we wanted to give them a chance to have their say. We wanted to give everyone a chance to air their grievances, respond to the news stories, to be able to talk about what to do if something like that happened." Conklin says that they talked quite a bit about what-if scenarios. "If you were a victim what would you want a witness to do for you? The school is a strong advocate for students and not everyone necessarily knows that."

Looking to the future, Conklin says the group has plans for new social events. "One of our students has been on a mission to discover the best burger places. We are planning an event around that." Another project, is the Physics for Everyone Challenge,” based around the XKCD comic, "Up-Goer 5," which described the Saturn V rocket using the 1,000 simplest words in the English Language. "We might do a contest activity. Can you write about your research in simple words? There’s a tendency to use more complicated jargon. I was impressed with how much detail they could explain using those simple words."

Conklin says they are planning on creating a contest with a couple stages of voting, one based on technical accuracy another on literary merits. It’s possible they could involve schools as well, turning the voting over to kids.