I went to a small college in a small town, and I clearly remember my advisor having me and my college sweetheart over to his home for ice cream on the day I finished my senior project. That re-re-reconfirmed to me that I wanted to be a professor. Next, when I was in my master’s program, three of my professors each had us over to their homes for dinner on the last day of their classes. It was so cool, I still remember where I sat and what we talked about.
Over the past 30 years I’ve had well over 500 dinners, parties, game nights, or jam sessions at my home with graduate students, visiting scholars, summer interns, teaching assistants (TAs), advisees, colleagues, lab teammates, and so on. For instance, the last class session of every graduate class is a dinner, we have welcoming parties for every single new person in the Lab (and going away parties when they leave), we celebrate every time we get a major grant or major paper accepted by having a potluck, and when I have a speaker or colleague in from out of town we’ll usually also invite a student or two to join us for dinner.
These dinners and parties were always lots of fun. They created loads of team commitment and a lot of great lab enthusiasm. They made new people felt very quickly accepted and valued, and they reinforced how much veteran lab members were appreciated. They also seemed to be a highlight for visitors, since it was a break from the restaurant routine, and it allowed them to talk and laugh with a lot more people.
I also think a lot of things could have gone wrong that fortunately didn’t. There was often lots of wine (especially before I married a sensible wife), these parties often lasted really late (especially before we had kids), and they were often pretty loud (even still). Sometimes people brought musical instruments and we jammed, sometimes we turned the stereo up to 11, and sometimes friendly police visited. Most of my colleagues tend to not have students over to their homes, partly because of what they imagine what could go wrong. They're partly right, but that's largely a shame. Because there's a solution.
Over the years as I started seeing how different things could have spun off the tracks, and I gradually came up with little rules of thumb I’d use to keep things in check. About 10 years ago, I honed in on six guidelines that have luckily worked well for us. For new summer interns or graduate students, we’ll stick to all of six of the guidelines. For long-term lab employees, visiting colleagues, or post-docs, we're a lot more liberal. Here's the guidelines that have worked for our parties so far:
-  Put a start and ending time on the invitation (like "6:00 to 9:00")
-  Have at least two interesting nonalcoholic things to drink
-  If there's going to be alcohol, only serve wine (although sometimes guests will bring beer)
-  Only offer the equivalent of 1 glass per person (although they can refill themselves)
-  Keep everybody on the main floor or on the back deck (and close upstairs and downstairs doors)
-  At 9:00, turn the music off and don’t open any more wine
Now, I used to have none of these rules or guidelines, and I was lucky. For example, when I was a single 30-year-old MBA professor, I often had the students in my MBA classes over to my apartment for end-of-semester dinner parties or BBQs, and there’s a number of things that could have gone wrong. Fortunately nothing ever went wrong, but these guidelines would have been a really, really good idea back then.
Some of my best memories as a student were when professors had me over to their homes. I admired them, and I wanted to be like them. Being invited over, made me feel accepted and like I was part of an inner academic circle. It might not mean anything to some students, but it might also be remembered by others 40 years later