In the last post, I gave some specific examples where communications and lack of policy led to annoying and awkward situations that had relatively large consequences (at least at the time). These issues are managerial. Leadership and management skills are a huge part of running a lab, and we are not taught how to do this at all. There is some idea that if you are a good and organized researcher who has had some smart people as your advisors in the past, you will just pick up all these things. Why should any of that be true? There is no guarantee that because you are good at science you are good at management or even that organized! And the idea that someone else who has been successful is also a good manager is laughable. A lot of leadership and management comes down to communication, but just saying things is not enough, because students don’t always listen (just think about lecturing in class!).
In this post, I want to give some solutions I came up with to tackle these issues. I hope if others have other creative and innovative solutions, they share them as well.
State of the Lab Address: I realized a lot of the issues I was having with students came from cultural differences. I don’t mean cultural like a foreign country, although I have always had international students and postdocs, I mean that I expected the lab to have a certain culture, a certain work ethic, a certain civility and collegiality. If you lab is established, a new student can get a lot of this from cultural cues from the other people, but a new lab has no culture yet! Partly some of this stuff is out of your control and depends on the personalities in the lab, but actually a lot of the tone is set by you as the leader of the group, what you will tolerate, and what you will not. So, I decided to just spell it out and not leave it ambiguous.
The State of the Lab address is also an orientation talk for new people in the lab and a reminder to those who have been there for a while. The first pages go through lab culture stuff like Who is in the lab? What are graduate students and what are they supposed to do? What policies do they adhere to that are specific to them? What is expected from undergraduates? What is a postdoc and what are they supposed to do? Perhaps most importantly, what is a Principle Investigator (PI = you)? What are you doing all day when they don’t see you in the lab? Some immature students feel like they only need to be in the lab if the PI is there. I disabuse them of that idea early on and actually explain that I do a lot of lab work in my office writing grants and papers. The address changes based on changing lab policy, organization, and what is happening.
I couch all of this in an allegory of the lab as a small business. I tell them I am the CEO and my job is lead them to success. They are the shareholders and they should realize that the success of the lab depends on their success. The explain that our product from the lab is papers, presentations at meetings, and good students who can reason and think creatively. Unlike a real small business, we don’t make a profit and I can’t go to a bank to get a loan to pay them, so part of my job as CEO is to get the money. I do this by writing grants to the government and foundations. Without these sources of funding none of them would be able to do research in the lab. I also tell the students straight out what our financial situation looks like. I tell them how many grants we have and what it covers. I let them know if I am getting summer salary or working for free over the summer. I tell them how much certain equipment costs and remind them to be careful with it. I tell them how much money we spend on disposable lab supplies and reagents each month. I tell them what grants I am working on, how much we ask for, and the chances of getting it. I know a lot of people try to hide these sausage-making details from their students, but why? When you explain and they can understand the concerns of the lab, they go in with open eyes.
After these discussions, I spend some time on the individual projects of the lab members and how they should be spending their time, so there is no confusion about who is working on which project. We have very few issues with project ownership in the lab because I try to discuss it openly in a full lab meeting with all members present. I make these little presentations twice a year, so everyone is up to date on what is going on consistently.
Lab Rules: Although the State of the Lab really helped define lab culture and told policy, not every student can see that presentation right when they come into the lab. Further, there are a lot of other policies that the lab has, and they cannot all be covered in one meeting that has to address culture, too. So, based on my friend AfricanAmericanManOfScience’s own document that he came up with after the fire incident, I developed a set of Lab Rules.
The Lab Rules are an 8-page document that details all the policies of the lab. When a new policy arises, it goes in the document. Here are some topic headings I have in my Lab Rules document:
- Personal Issues, Work, and Work Hours
- Lab Organization
- Lab Meetings, Seminars, Journal Clubs, Semesterly Reports
- Reagent Preparation, Use, and Disposal
- Reagent Storage
- Ordering and Receiving
- Data Collection and Archiving
- Lab Safety and Environmental Health
- Major Equipment Use and Maintenance
In order to ensure that the students read it, they must print, read, sign the document. I have them return the final signature page to me, which I keep on record and will use if something goes wrong. Having these rules spelled out, in print, and forcing them to read it has cut down a lot of incidents in my lab. This is especially useful in the summer when my lab balloons up with visiting student researchers.
Undergraduate Documents: I have a lot of undergraduates working in my lab over the summer and each semester. I found I was losing track of which ones were being paid, getting credit from which department, and communicating to them what the expectations were for them to be in the lab and do their work. I decided to make a couple of undergraduate-specific documents. The first was a UndergraduateApplication to work in the lab, an idea that came from a peer mentor colleague while discussing over lunch. I was getting a huge number of students asking to work in the lab, and he found that this simple barrier to making them fill out a form before he would meet with them cut down a lot of frivolous meetings with students who weren’t really interested. The Application is simple with their name, classes and grades, the names of 1-2 professors who can serve as a reference, and if they are in the honors college or interested in a thesis or capstone project.
After they fill out the application to work in the lab, we meet, and decide if they are going to join the lab. If they are joining the lab, we decide how many hours they will work and how they will be compensated (money, if available vs. credit vs. just volunteering). When that is settled, we fill out a contract. The contract has all the details of if they are getting paid or credit, which course they sign up for in which department. They sign and I sign, and we make a copy, so we are all on the same page. I keep it until the end of the semester, so I can keep track with which students need to have grades reported and which department to report the grades to. This system works much better than trying to remember for 6 different students.
Lab Fun: All this managerial stuff is boring, so I try to do some team building as well. We try to take lab trips at least once in the summer to the beach or a lake. I think a lot of people do this because it is fun, but it serves an important part of building lab morale and camaraderie. Another thing I do that is specific to my lab is to make wacky science videos. Unlike in other labs where the students self-organize behind the professor’s back, mine is professor-initiated and lab-sanctioned. We take a whole day in the summer, make costumes, work out shots and film. Someone has to take the film to edit it into a video. I did this at first, but I don’t have time anymore, so I rely on having at least one student with editing skills. When it is done, we watch it and post it to YouTube.
I am sure there are many other creative and innovative ways to manage a lab and cut down on silly miscommunications or other issues. Please comment or guest post (it can be anonymous), if you have more helpful hints!