Sunday, February 13, 2011

Lab management thoughts

It's graduate recruitment season, and we see lots of bright-eyed, optimistic prospective students coming through to visit. They've mostly had experience with research and are excited about science. But one obvious question often stumps them- what do you want to "get" out of graduate school? Many say things about mentorship and learning a lot of science and how to do it. The vast majority really don't know, though, beyond that they love science and want more. When asked what specific skills they'd like to acquire, they focus entirely on research or teaching and never mention "management."

I've posted in this blog before about how many standard graduate programs fail to adequately prepare students for many aspects of their job, beyond doing great science and sometimes grant- or paper-writing (which are obviously crucial). One of the biggest missing pieces that would be helpful irrespective of their final career is training in management. Some PhD students or postdocs will have supervised an undergraduate or two, and may have helped train new staff members. But formal training in management is basically nil in most programs.

Nonetheless, new (and old!) faculty struggle with management all the time. I've told new faculty that, for me personally, that's the area that causes me to lose more sleep than any other area directly associated with the job- more than teaching, getting grants, publishing papers, getting an experiment to work, etc. Some aspects one learns quickly, like being active in communicating both good progress and concerns early. Many (hopefully!) learn the big lesson of never to talk about other lab people's performance, especially concerns thereof. One of my biggest lessons was to schedule formal one-on-one time with everyone in lab, and if the meeting is short, then so-be-it, but at least a clear opportunity for communication is present and frequent.

Still, the transition from being "one of the lab" to being "the boss" is abrupt, and requires conscious behavioral modification. Jokes or teasing that were acceptable as a student or postdoc can be taken FAR more personally or worse. Similarly, you shouldn't just blindly Facebook-friend everyone who joins the lab- the relationship is too unequal for that (it's debatable whether you should accept a friend-request initiated by them, but I have been doing that). Generally, your opinion is taken with far more weight- some will not tell you if/ when they disagree. Further, frankly, there will be times when the lab folks just won't want you around because they don't want to have to be "on guard"- and they may not make that clear to you, so you should be careful not to overly insert yourself into their downtime.

I still struggle with this, even now 13 years into being a faculty member. The tone also changes with time, I think, particularly as your aging creates more distance between you and the increasingly relatively younger members of your lab. One aspect I find hard is dealing with disparity: some people in lab want to interact with you a lot, while others less-so. The apparent solution would be to adjust to individual's desires (to the extent you can with your available time), but this can create time inequities that are perceived as "favoritism", even if not initiated by the faculty member. Clearly, one has to make a conscious effort to be fair to all lab members in terms of professional and guidance-related opportunities, but informal interactions can be beneficial to the student and faculty member and may not happen equally to all students. In years past, I've had some lab members feel like I interacted preferentially with one person, when it was, at least partially, that one person who actively sought me out.

Other situational issues also arise. What do you tell lab people when someone is fired (or gently asked to leave)? Do you literally say nothing, even when they ask? How much do you let lab people know about your current funding, given that it's obviously zero-sum? How about celebrating successes- if one person has many of them, do you reduce celebration of those successes so as not to make the less-successful-recently folks feel bad? There are standard responses, like "It's a success for all of us when any do well," but we have to acknowledge we're also human and sometimes fall into negative emotions.

I'm curious from others of you- what challenges have you encountered (either directly or through observation)? Any advice to share? I should confess that I'm writing a full formal piece on this subject now, and if you convey a great thought, I may write you directly to ask permission to mention it!