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!


  1. I consider that the focus should be on communication skills. It's common to notice that the lab inside is like an islands model. The central node is of course the "boss", but the information flow between the different groups (projects) is low. I think that each Lab member can provide valuable advices in order to improve the experimental design, data interpretation and so on, through a simple meeting. Sharing our experiences is the key factor. Of course the main focus must be on the own project, but the "scientific (research) egoism" does not have place.
    Other topic is where and when these skills should be adquire, whether the classroom or the lab. I don't know the first undergrad program that include it!

  2. This is on my mind right now as well. I bought this book a while ago:

    but have yet to read it, although it came highly recommended. Time for me to read it!

  3. I've developed lots of opinions about lab management after 15 years of rolling around labs. One thing I have never figured out is the best way for a PI to manage conflicts between students (or postdocs). I know that allowing one student to talk to you (the PI) about his or her issues with another student is a recipe for trouble (the other student will nearly always guess and the situation will only become worse). Still, acting as a conflict mediator seems outside of the realm (and training) of the PI. But ignoring the problem also seems like the wrong route. I'm lucky not to have encountered this problem yet, but I'm sure it will happen eventually.

  4. Mohamed- This is a great topic. Scientific faculty are the equivalent of small business owners, with all the attendant financial and management issues, but without any formal training in these areas! As you know the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (in collaboration with HHMI) has a freely-downloadable manual for Laboratory Management, available at . It touches on this topic but greater depth is definitely needed, so please share your formal piece when you finish it! An important issue is how to give feedback in a way that does not discourage but motivates better performance. Unfortunately there is not a simple formula that will work for every lab member- in a way, the PI has to become a student of the various people and personalities in the group, in order to best motivate them. As you point out above however, it is difficult to do this while still remaining fair to everyone. I think one important key is to be approachable (this comes more naturally to some than to others), and to make it clear that everyone in the group has access to you. Another key is to create a culture in which people can admit their mistakes-- this is so important in science! How exactly to do that is difficult but a lot of it has to do with how the PI reacts when a mistake comes to light.

    It might be useful to find out how many universities offer some basic management training for new faculty, and how that correlates with their track record as managers during those early years.
    Great post!
    Nancy Sung, Burroughs Wellcome Fund

  5. I'm in my first year as faculty, and grad student advising has definitely been my biggest hurdle. I'm 29, with graduate students ranging in age from early 20's to mid-30's. The temptation to try to be part of the graduate student crowd again is very strong, particularly since I'm in a new city with little time to make friends outside of work. I'm getting better at being friendly without proffering friendship, and at limiting my visits to grad student spaces so that the environment doesn't become too casual. It's an odd position to be in.

  6. This is such an important conversation and, as a later stage grad student, can really see that most of us will be unprepared to be dealing with these issues that you laid out. You hit on all the big ones, as far as I can tell. I've spent time thinking about it and on both sides of many of these dilemmas. I keep WANTING to land on a recipe or a static code of ethic. I haven't yet and guess I never will. It sounds trite, but I do think the most effective strategy is the leading by example thing (i.e. forgive yourself for your own mistakes, etc.) A high-functioning work place needs both transparency and discretion and those two things are at odds with each other by definition, so it can only be a dance that honors both to varying degrees depending on the situation. This is very daunting because it means as junior bosses we'll make so many missteps! And we are a high-achieving bunch which means we much prefer not to misstep.

    I could go on and on but I think the best we can do is carry on the conversation, as you are. And keep exercising our judgment--like a muscle--because in the end the best leaders are just very skilled at exercising judgment. And then they also seem to figure out how not to let their lapses in judgment (which WILL happen) dog them.

    It's a dance and an ongoing conversation. Thanks for posting and please let us know when your formal piece is available!

  7. I'm finding that the same thing happens in industry. I work at an ag biotech company, and thought that since I didn't have a PhD that I would be immune from non-science type activities. However, so far this year, most of my time has been taken up in designing and executing internal rebranding surveys, cost analysis of outsourcing and in-house operations, capital proposal writing, and troubleshooting purchasing systems. Have I had training? Nope.