You receive a friendly e-mail from your colleague, where they show their interest in a secondment at your institution. The pressure is on! You may be of a calm disposition, but see how that fares when you’re screaming at the ICPMS for breaking down once again, while remembering that you never picked up the box of consumables you ordered the day before, and you just missed the compulsory morning Heath and Self briefing. Well fear not, practice makes perfect; here are a few simple tips to ensure the secondment is a raging hit. My advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience: I embraced the stumbles and screw ups, and turned them into powerful lessons like the ones below.
As the host, you have the main role – plan early. Do a Noah and build your arc before the rains come: get as much done in advance as possible. There is no shame in recruiting a little help; sit with your secretary (hopefully you have one at your institution), review all the necessary steps, and do all your sweating and swearing beforehand. Make sure you know all the potential weaknesses of the system and the necessary steps to be taken for overseas travellers (e.g. getting a visa). Planning time is precious since your colleague might stay only for couple of weeks, so make sure all the precautions are taken for things to run smoothly.Make yourself available to help during the planning, also local phone calls are cheaper for you! When helping your colleague finding an accommodation, think carefully about price, and also the location. It might take a while to get familiar with the public transport. Take a look at other properties near you: what do the hosts charge? Finding accommodation might be particularly challenging, especially in more isolated places. Some host institutions cannot guarantee a place on campus during peak season, therefore other options should be explored. Airbnb is a reasonable solution for short stays, but you have to make sure your friend are ready to accept that they might have to make small talk with strangers over their dinner, which sometimes can be intimidating.
Once you have sorted out accommodation, you need to make sure that the landlord can provide a receipt or a proof of payment for your colleague to claim back. It is important you clarify what the other institutions expect to receive. Before arrival provide several contact numbers (landlord, main student reception, security, and maybe also your supervisor’s phone number) in case of emergency, it can be really stressful as a guest if you can’t find your accommodation and can’t get hold of the host.
A good host not only helps planning the accommodation and travel, but since you know your University (institution) better than anyone else, you have to plan all the aspect of your colleague’s stay! There are many chances to interact with host life through websites, virtual tours, and social media. However, visiting the campus will give your colleague a real sense of the atmosphere, so you could arrange a guided tour to meet staff and fellow students, see the faculty, visit the local pub and restaurant, and more.
Make sure your colleague is aware of all the student union meetings, lab meetings, and other relevant ways of getting involved. Being an active member in the department can help him/her to gain a better understanding of what opportunities are out there and build a wider network. This is also a good way not to be stuck in front of a computer or in a lab all day, it adds variety to the day which can help decrease the risk of burnout.
It is also very important to ‘help others out’ without losing your own focus. Your positive impact on the world comes when you’re happy, so you really need to make sure you have a plan, a schedule to keep up with your everyday lab-life, but also being able to support and help your colleague visiting. If the rewards aren’t immediately apparent, contributing to the success of others pays off in the long run. Sometimes t’s difficult to say no to co-workers, but keep in mind that they are the one able appreciate your work and they will always be willing to help you out when you need it. After all, you have to remember that what is obvious for you (the drawer with the funnels, that 1 ml pipette that doesn’t work, or the balance in plant science that you are not allowed to use…) might not be obvious to someone who just got there.
Make sure you clarify what they expect from you and what you expect from them. Also you need to review and rehearse potential methods, protocols, and explanations. Be authentic, conversational, and real. Have a point of view. Bring something to the party. Own it. Time is crucial so make sure your explanations are clear and comprehensive. Essentially you’re saying, “Let me show you. See what I mean? Now look. Do you get the picture?”
The most critical skill is time management, finding a good structure to the day and keeping a day planner helps keep various demands in order. Structure and sticking to set times to write, read, and lab work can be particularly challenging (and stressful) when dealing with equipment, instruments, and people. It is important to set aside time from your research and books to take a break, what a better moment than sharing some time off at the café with your colleague? You can take a walk around the campus – hopefully no need for umbrellas – and have the time to recharge, and don’t forget to enjoy the journey!
Now you’re ready. You are the perfect secondment host.
I want to thank Stacie for being always interested, motivated, and curious about research. I really had a good time with her, and I am glad that our friendship is not dependant on mood swings and bad hair days. Thanks for your support.
I also wanted to thank Coren, for knowing exactly when to tell me what I want to hear, when I want to hear it the most. I consider myself very fortunate for having a chance to work with both of them. It was a great learning experience for me. I wish we had more time to spend together outside work, and visit the UK a little, but I really hope you will come back soon!