Hello, world! Virtually welcoming new grad students

Starting a PhD, like any new job, can be daunting. New students have a lot to get used to- new schedules, new people, new environments- and the current COVID-19 situation doesn’t exactly help! For graduate students beginning their PhDs this year, an extra challenge will be integrating into the student community in their Department without any physical interaction.

Many of us who are already part-way through grad school feel really disappointed for these students, who could potentially miss out on building new friendships and support networks with their peers by starting their PhDs in the middle of this pandemic. However, whilst the new students might not be able to meet everyone in the usual way- by joining student offices, tagging along to coffee breaks, or going to social events- that doesn’t mean that we can’t get to know them virtually.

To this end, we’ve decided to put together a brief list of ideas to help you welcome the new graduate students in your Department this year. This is not an exhaustive list, but we hope it provides some inspiration for ways to get to know your new peers online!

Set up a buddy/ mentoring system

Having a specific person to act as a point of contact is a great way of offering support to someone who may not know anyone in the Department yet. A lot of students who start at a new institution will only have had previous interactions with staff members (such as their supervisory team or interview panel) so giving them the opportunity to get in contact with their peers is really important. Depending on what the student wants, the mentor’s job could range from a fairly hands-off approach to regular check-ins, but the basic obligations would be to answer any questions that the new student might have and invite them along to meetings and social hang outs. Ideally, the mentor would be someone who has just come to the end of the first year themselves as they have most recently experienced the processes that the new starters are about to go through.

Furthermore, it’s a good idea to ensure that the mentor reaches out to the student first, rather than putting the onus on the student. They might be understandably nervous about emailing an older peer that they’ve not met before. Even if you just send a brief welcome email simply stating that you’re there to answer any questions they might have, it can make all the difference!

Invite them to virtual hang outs

This might be one of the easiest ways to interact with the new students! Most of us are already socialising with our peers online, so when the new recruits arrive it’ll simply be a matter of inviting them to join in (if you’ve set up a mentoring system, this can be the mentor’s job). If you have a large PGR cohort, you may want to organise smaller hang outs first, so that the student isn’t overwhelmed when they join a Zoom call with 40 other people. At my institution, we considered breaking this down by research group. Not only will students in the same group interact more anyway due to their overlapping science themes, but it will also be helpful for the incoming students to get to know those who can provide them with help on the academic side of their PhDs.

Some of the ideas we had for virtual meet ups or events include:

  • Lunchtime hang outs and coffee breaks
  • Quizzes/ crosswords/ other online games or puzzles
  • Chats with focussed discussion topics- these can be work related, like “tips for reading scientific papers”, or fun, like “meet my pet”!
  • Five minute poster sessions, either on your research or to introduce yourself

Any of the usual video call platforms would work fine for these ideas, but it’s also worth mentioning a really cool website called gather.town. Here, each participant has an avatar which can walk around a virtual world and join or leave conversations like in real life- when you get close to a person or group of people, you join the call, and when you walk away, you leave it. This platform is gaining particular popularity at online conferences where there can be hundreds of participants, so it translates well for larger virtual hang outs. The free version can host up to 50 people, and you can even create your own custom map where you can host poster sessions and talks.

gather.town is an video calling platform that emulates real-life conversations- and it’s really fun!

Send out a welcome pack

Another idea is to physically reach out to the new students by sending them a welcome pack in the mail. If your Department can spare a bit of money towards this, you could include things like stationary, a coffee mug, or a sweet treat (being mindful of allergens, of course). If you can only cover postage costs, why not create a welcome leaflet or booklet? This would be a great way of providing the new students with relevant information about regular meetings, journal clubs, or forums, as well as some general news about goings-on in the Department and University (research-related or otherwise). You might also want to include a list of helpful information that the older PGRs had wished they’d known when they started, or tips for working at home.

The caveat to this idea is, of course, having access to the students’ addresses- this may not be possible with data protection rules, but there may be an administrator in the Department who is able to contact them via mail.

Above all, let them know that you’re there

In a time like this many of us have extra stresses and pressures, so if you feel unable to organise something extravagant, that’s okay! At the end of the day, whatever way you may choose to welcome in the new cohort of PhD students, the main thing is to let them know that you’re there for them. Hopefully it won’t be too long before you can meet them in person!

Until then, we hope that you have found the ideas we’ve shared in this article useful- and if you’re starting your PhD this year, then we wish you the best of luck!

About Rosanna Tilbrook

I'm a second year PhD student at the University of Leicester. My research is centred around the Next Generation Transit Survey, which is a telescope in Chile looking for new planets in our galaxy by measuring minute changes in the brightness of stars. When I'm not doing spacey things, I like to listen to / play music, travel, eat pasta, and squish my cats.

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  1. At my university we have a Slack server for the entire department, with group channels and specific private channels for faculty, post-docs, and students. It’s a great way to ask questions or share things with whomever you feel comfortable. (Sometimes you just want to ask a programming question of your peers, sometimes you don’t mind opening it up to see if someone more senior can offer an answer.) We got it set up before the pandemic happened, and it’s proved to be quite useful since for things like keeping track of Zoom links to department-wide events like student reviews and colloquia.

    • We have a departmental slack channel as well – it’s brilliant! So useful.

      Thanks Rosie for these ideas – I’ve already organised a gather hangout with fellow students to see how it works ready for the new students to arrive soon!


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