I was just visiting with my former postdoc at her new tenure-track job to give a couple talks. I had the opportunity to talk with a few other relatively new female faculty members, and I was giving them a laundry lists of things that I figured out to do with my lab to make training students, setting expectations, and overall communication a bit smoother. Mostly, these are things that I didn’t start doing right away, but eventually figured out and they work pretty well. As always, if you have any suggestions of organizing tactics for your lab, please post or comment. To get updates from this blog, push the +Follow button. Today, I will describe an orientation I do twice a year in the lab, called the “State of the Lab Address.”
Frequency: I give this talk twice a year to reinforce and to orient new people, mainly undergraduates, who start in the lab.
Social Orientation: I first go through a sort of social orientation for new lab members. I name and describe all the types of people in the lab: professors, postdocs, grad students, undergrads, high school students, high school teachers, technicians, or whomever. It depends on who is in the lab at the time. For each type of person, I list the expected behaviors and tasks that they are supposed to do. I even do this for me, the professor. There is a chapter in the book “At the Bench” that goes through some of this. Remember that many young students have no idea the trajectory of an academic professor. By educating them, you can help people get along with each other and show each other the proper respect they deserve for achieving the level of education they worked hard to achieve. I set social expectations for respect to each other in the lab.
Lab as the Small Business: I relate the environment and structure of the lab to something they hear more about in the media – the small business. I state that we are shareholders of a small business called, “WomanOfScience Lab,” and we create knew knowledge and smart people who go off to do other great things. I say that I am the Principle Investigator (PI) of the lab, but my role is that of CEO. I have to make sure there is money to pay you, but it is also my job to promote the lab and make us all look good. So, I write lots of proposals for grants to pay people, and I go to give lots of talks to promote our work, so it is easier to get grants. They are the shareholders, and they need to work hard, so I can have something good to say to the grant agencies. Here, I set up expectations for professional behavior. Call in when you are sick, so we know not to expect you. Turn in assignments on time. Do you work in a timely manner. Make time for lab work (undergraduates need help with this).
Job Expectations: I specifically outline the expectations for each level of person in the lab. I make it very specific about how I spend my time (writing proposals, writing papers, traveling and giving talks, teaching to education people and recruit good, new shareholders). I find that, as a woman, people see you sitting in your office, and they automatically think you are goofing off, and not working. So, I make it really clear that, if I am here, I am working. It helps them understand all that goes into the job of being a professor, in case they are thinking of going the academic route. I also describe all their jobs and expectations. For instance, I say that it is the job of undergraduates to try to learn, try to do experiments, and make sure that the work is fun, and you want to stay with science. Our goal is a paper, conference abstract and presentation either off-campus or on campus, and likely a capstone/thesis report. I also make it clear that their classes come first, and there are always times when you have 3 midterms, and can’t make it to lab. I remind them that missing the lab for other things is fine, but they need to report in via email or phone, so no one is worried they got in a car accident. When you give this talk, you can make your own definitions for each position, as they should work in your lab. Just make sure you are clear on these expectations.
Science of the Lab: I do an overview of the science work in the lab. I try to tie it together with a broad introduction, as I might do in a talk to undergraduates. I specify each experiment, the progress made by people in the lab (SoAndSo is writing a paper on this now). This is the easy part, because it is the stuff you think about often. I try to update it, but don’t have to update the front matter. I also explicitly discuss the money situation of the lab. In this, I am showing my personal belief that students need to understand “how the sausage is made.” It does no good to protect them. I tell them straight out, “We have a grant for this from FederalFundingAgency for this amount, and this covers one graduate student’s salary for 3 years.” Or, “We ran out of funds for this line of research, and I am working really hard to get a grant to cover X’s thesis project.” Again, I want them to respect the fact that getting funds is difficult, and I am working hard to fund our science.
Rules of the Group: At the end, I go through any rules of the lab. For instance, I have weekly group meetings. If people can attend (if they don’t have a class), I require everyone to present weekly and each person must have 1 slide with a picture/movie/figure that illustrates what they did over the past week and describes what they will do over the next week. I make it clear that participation is not optional, presentation is not optional. If they are present, but don’t have a slide, they must do an interpretive dance of their work. I also try to establish that they need to be respectful of the equipment, materials, and physical property of the lab. Again, I am not afraid to bring up money. I tell them how much stuff costs, and how much we spend on materials and supplies. I also tell them that I often go without pay in the summer. This opens their eyes. In following posts, I will discuss the Rules of the Group in detail, so stay tuned for more.
So, why do this? I find that this 1-hour presentation helps to avert problems in the future and helps everyone understand each other. This is a time-saving mechanism. Further, it helps to head off questions and misconceptions about expectations. This presentation does not cover research training on what we actually do in the group. I train students on research skills as a group in a “Bootcamp” setting, which I will describe in future talks.
My question for you, is what am I missing? I have developed this de novo, but what else should I include? Comment or post to discuss.