Three years ago, graduate students studying Operations Research (OR) at University of Toronto did not know much about each other’s work. I could not help but feeling myself narrow-minded without knowing how others applied OR differently. An OR seminar/group kind of thing would help – I thought, and that’s how UTORG got started. Starting a student group is not a new thing in academic. But I hope my sharing of how UTORG was built from scratch can be somehow helpful to students who are driven by the same passion.

Unlike serving in an already-built organization, where the task is more to do with keeping the ball rolling, or making a bigger ball to roll, starting a new group is to come up with a ball and keep pushing it until it rolls. Apparently, if the ball that you start off pushing is too big, the ball could end up not moving a single bit regardless how much time or efforts you put on it. Such possible waste of time/effort can be quite unbearable especially to graduate students who already feel short of time for their own research activities. Overall, UTORG was built following closely the idea of “lean startup”—we kept everything as simple as possible.

Below is a brief summary (relative to what I have in mind) of my experience in starting UTORG.

  • It is the people not the funding that matters (the most): Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying funding is not important in starting a new group. But, maybe to your surprise, usually what I found is that more often you are short of hands rather than money in planning events. This is especially true when running a graduate student group.
  • The challenge: If you were a graduate student, you probably would agree with me that there isn’t a real campus life for grads. Rather, there is a lab life for grads, where most of time we work nowhere else except in the lab on our research. In addition, graduate students in general do not get much credit or rewards, compared to undergraduates, from the extracurricular works. All of these make it harder to run a grads group.
  • The first UTORG team: I did not start the UTORG on my own. I first found Mike from the Reliability Lab, and then Kimia from the Medical OR Lab. Later, Mike found Lawrence in his lab, and then Kimia found Jenya in her lab. Mike and Lawrence later brought Vahid from another lab on board, who designed today UTORG’s sleek website.  Finally, we found Velibor who regularly attended our UTORG lunch talk and later became a tremendous help to event coordination (who also ended up happily going to MIT for his PhD).
  • How to find team members: You may be surprised that I didn’t find anyone from my own lab. The reason is simple – for most of my PhD years I was the only student in the lab. When I look back now, I feel that it turns out to be a plus in developing the team as it helps avoid building another lab-kind of group.  You can also see that even looking for team members, I did not do it all on my own. I relied on whom I know, e.g. Mike and Kimia, to find whom they know. This is critically important especially for graduate students, since grads usually only hang out with friends from the same lab, it is in general challenging and ineffective to approach some students from other labs on your own (especially without knowing what their lab-life is like, which may vary from one lab’s supervisor to another).
  • Two are enough to go: When starting a group you don’t need to wait until getting an ideal number of team members, say 5 for example, on board to start off planning events. Sometime, it is far more effective to find one during the event. It is in the event where you can find someone who shares the same interests – the easiest way to find your team members is to check their attendance rate! Here is a caveat related to finding your team members: For those who show their interests in taking a position in the team but rarely showed up in the past events, you may like to reconsider their qualification since their only interest could be just having the position on their CV.
  • Plan small: I found in the early stage of a group start-up, it is tempting to think big. But often, this is also where it ends. Weaving a dream for the group’s future is always exciting – this is probably why people like to have many meetings to ensure the vision of a group. Unfortunately, as graduate students – actually for any entrepreneur I believe, there are many hard constraints that we need to respect, and in many cases, our big plan, which may appear optimal, is simply just not feasible.
  • UTORG’s first year strategy: In UTORG’s first year, our goal was not to generate events to fill the whole calendar year, rather was to focus on few events (once or at most twice per semester) that we believed really fitted the interests of students/faculty, and made sure these events were well promoted.  We assiduously found the right contacts across the campus to deliver events’ information and double-confirmed that students or faculty were constantly updated. As the outcomes, the average number of attendance for our early events was around 60-70 (maximum one was above 100), which enabled us to proceed to the next stage, creating a membership system. I want to emphasize here that all these events, as they were not too many, were all run within our capacity and used as a great leverage for planning our later group development.
  • The start of UTORG lunch talks and OR meet and Greet: Having the contact information of more than 100 members, we were able to start a series of small-scale events with much less promotion efforts. Our initial idea for starting these events was clear: they had to be easily manageable. These events were planned to take place twice per month or even more frequently. That’s why the preparation of each event needed to be light; otherwise we might give up at some points, as the preps became constant distractions to our own research work. Following Professor Timothy Chan’s brilliant idea, we introduced a series of UTORG lunch talk, where students were invited to come with their own lunch bags during lunchtime. All we basically did was to have the room booked and someone ready to share his/her research ideas. Wasn’t that simple? Till today, UTORG lunch talk not only continues taking place in RS207, but also evolves into a size that RS207 is too small to accommodate! Great job thanks to current UTORG team led by Kimia! Events such as OR Meet and Greet were also introduced based on the same startup principle – simple is better, where UTORG helped reserve time slots of MIE invited speakers for U of T students who like to have a more small-group-style discussion with the speakers. I hope these events can be good examples for someone looking for ideas to start events that bring the most value to students while not too time-consuming.

Founding UTORG to me is a special and unique experience I had during my PhD study. I met so many wonderful friends there. But only till now I start to learn what the biggest reward is to the effort that I made. Want to know what that is? Clicking here and joining these events would give you the answer.

All the best to whoever driven by the same passion!

Jonathan

 

 

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