Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘Lab Management’

Organizing Your Group: Semester Reports

TypingAlthough I have mentioned the semester report in prior posts (management, lab rules, management), I realize that I haven’t made it explicit what the report is for, what it asks for, and how I use it to manage the lab. First, I should say there are lot of ways to do something like this. I started having my students write reports after talking to a very senior WomanOfScience about how she organizes her group. She makes her students write monthly reports. I tried that, but it was too frequent for them and for me. I decided one per semester and one in the summer (3 per year) was a better rate for reporting. I give the students a specific deadline, usually September 1, June 1, and February 1. I also encourage them to take time away from performing new experiments so they can spend time reflecting and writing the report.

Q: Why do this? A: Pedagogy. As most of us are, I am an educator. I noticed that my students were not getting practice with their writing. We would have enough data for a paper, and they would freak out about having to write it. Or, they would write it very poorly. Sometimes they would not include information that they should (data, methods) in the paper because they literally forgot what they did. I decided that the students needed more practice and they needed to routinely recap what they did and their results before it all piled up. I also decided to use this report as a mechanism to help them plan ahead and to do a little self assessment.

Q: What? A: Specific questions. Unlike writing a paper that has a specific format, I wanted the report to be a historical recap of what the students did over the previous semester. I wanted them to think about what their plan had been, what they tried, what worked, what didn’t work, what they accomplished, and give them a place to think about the next 3-4 months. To do this, I ask them to address specific questions in their report. I paste in here the format I use:

  1. A list of goals that the student had for the previous semester/summer;
  2. A description of the experiments the student performed to reach those goals including:
    • The reagents and methods used to perform experiments
    • A description of any analysis you did including the programs you used and the metric you measured and why you measured them
    • A description of the results you found (using words in paragraph form)
    • Figures to illustrate the methods and results you found including images, timeseries of movie data, and plots of quantified data
    • A description of what you think your data means and what the next steps might be
  3. A list of unmet goals;
    • Any problems or issues that the student encountered in attaining those goals
    • Any improvements made or ways that progress can be made faster
  4. A list of goals for the next semester/summer;
    • Is this a reasonable amount of work?
    • What milestones do you expect to meet and when?
  5. A personal statement that addresses the following:
    • What is your personal career goal?
    • How will your work in this lab help you to achieve that goal?
    • What is your personal goal for completing your tenure in this lab? (If you plan to leave the lab eventually – most of you do!)
    • What are your personal goals for achieving your timeline? What skills are needed? What milestones and achievements do you need to make along the way?
  6. A self-evaluation of your progress and work in the lab, what you have done well, and what you need to improve on. For this section, please consider your:
    • Planning and completion of experiments
    • Organization, interpretation and presentation of data (written & oral)
    • Ability to think of “the next logical step” in your experimental design
    • Time management and commitment to research
    • Ability to work independently, troubleshoot & seek outside help when necessary
  7. Any new protocols developed over the last semester, typed, and as separate word documents. The protocols will be posted on the lab website for others to use.

Q: What do you do with these reports? A: Read and comment. I make all the spring reports due June 1, and I get a bunch in all around the same time. Then I have to spend some time reading and commenting. Sometimes I print them out, write comments on the papers, scan for my records, and give the comments back to the student. Other times, I write the comments in a word document and send that to the students. Interestingly, the part that the students are often most hung up on is their self-evaluation. Undergraduate students are especially hard on themselves often saying they are not dedicated enough to the lab. For the more senior students, it is great to see all the experiments they did over the last semester in one place. They often realize how much they did and are proud.

Q: Results? A: Awesome. These reports are super awesome. Here are some reasons why:

  1. The students get a chance to look at what they have done. As I said above, they are often shocked by how much they were able to complete. If they are balancing multiple projects, they are able to look at which projects made progress and which are struggling, and evaluate where to put their efforts.
  2. They get a chance to see what they are going to do. Sometimes students are so excited about taking data, they aren’t thinking about their progress, how much more they really need for a story, or if they might be done. Taking this time to rehash what they did often helps them to sort out where they are and what they still need to do.
  3. They get a chance to self-evaluate. Similar to giving them time to plan, giving time to self-evaluate is really important to stay motivated and keep things moving.
  4. Sometimes we realize they have enough for a paper. This has happened 3 times, in fact. I’m not sure how your science works, but in my field, it often takes a year to figure out how to take the data, but once you figure it out, you can basically take all the data in a couple months. Three different times, when I read a student’s report, there was enough data in there for a paper. Maybe a few new experiments were needed. Maybe a re-analysis, but the meat of a paper was there. Isn’t that amazing?

The only downside of this process is that sometimes I am too busy to do a good job reading the reports. That is bad, and I need to make time to do it. I am going to get many of them on June 1, and I need to make time to read and respond to them. It is especially important during my current situation (sabbatical) that I take the time to read and respond to all the reports.

What are your thoughts? Post or comment here. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post!


Organizing Your Group: Group Meetings

WomenTrainingAs I was writing the post about how best to meet with your advisor, I kept looking through my own blog for advice on how to conduct group meetings. I couldn’t find a post just on that topic. How is that possible? How could I have missed such an important topic? Is the problem that the solutions are too varied? Or the topic is too broad? Perhaps. But it is more likely that it was just too damn obvious. I mean, I had all kinds of posts about novel ways to organize your research group including: StateOfTheLabAddressTrainingStudentsLabRules, but nothing on actually having a group meeting. And almost every research group has some kind of group meeting sometimes, so maybe I just thought it didn’t need saying.

Well, I think it does, so here I go. Actually, I am going to have a series of posts on this topic, similar to what I did about advice on when to have a baby. That is because I don’t think there is a single right answer. Different groups have different personalities and need to do different things. I have asked some awesome WomenOfScience to send me some of their group meeting advice, and they did! I will start off with what *I* do, and then I will have some posts about what others do. That way, if you see something new you like to do, you can try it. Also, I would be interested in follow-up posts. If you changed your meeting style, what was the outcome? Was it good, bad, ugly?

Types of group meetings: First off, there are lots of ways to meet with your group. I think when people discuss group meetings, they think of weekly meetings where one person of the group speaks about their work over the last couple months and gives a synopsis. We definitely have weekly group meetings, although I have a different style (see below). But, we also have broader, bigger group meetings with multiple groups and journal clubs. In the summers, we offer coordinated “classes” or lectures on special topics. Below, I describe these different types of meetings we have in our group and share how I personally conduct my group meetings and other such meetings. There is no one right way to do this! This is just one example that works for me.

Weekly group meetings: In my lab, I like to have every person present every week to update everyone else in the lab on what they are doing. This keeps me and others in the loop. I also encourage others to comment and make suggestions, so the team and benefit through our various backgrounds and knowledge bases.

To do this, I have a specific format for the presentations, so it doesn’t get crazy and unruly. First, everyone is limited to ONE SLIDE each. On that slide they must have 1. What they they last week, 2. What they plan to do next week, and 3. An image, picture, plot, movie that represents what they did the previous week. I try to get the slides in advance and put them all into a single presentation file that we can go through quickly. I often fall down on this part of the job and miss one or haven’t loaded them all by the start of the meeting, which is definitely not good meeting organization, but it does give us time to chat and talk about other issues in the lab. Group meetings are also a time to organize one-on-one meetings and discuss general group business.

If a student does not have their slide, there is a mild consequence – they must get up and present their slide as a chalk talk and perform a silly dance. Many students are embarrassed and do not forget their slide again. Some students do not find this to be a deterrent to forgetting their slide, which is a problem. There is a solution: I was chatting with another professor who also uses this style of lab meeting (including the  consequence), but his negative feedback is to have the student do burpees – those jump up push up things from gym class that NO ONE likes. Apparently, this is far more motivating than the dancing.

Journal clubs: During the school year, we have a weekly journal club, usually in conjunction with another lab. Some of my students are required by their graduate program to attend a weekly journal club for credit, so this fulfills that requirement. In our journal club, one person is in charge of picking the paper and distributing it. But, that person is NOT solely responsible for the content of the presentation. Instead, that person makes the slides of each figure, and we cycle through different people who present each figure. This format ensures that others have read the paper (at least enough to present their individual figure). This makes the discussion far better, since more people are prepared. I have seen a number of helpful instructions on how best to present a paper. It is very helpful to give these instructions at the beginning of the semester!

Larger/collaborator group meetings: We are apart of larger groups of researchers that collaborate or just work on related topics and want to get together to present their work and discuss and share issues and ideas. In these meetings, we rotate which group/student presents their work to the entire group in a one-hour format. Many times, we connect with collaborators via skype, which can be difficult. These meetings good for students to get practice with longer-format presentations.

Pedagogical group meetings: In the summers, we often have extra meetings that are basically lectures like one might have in a class. This is to help people learn a little more deeply about a specific topic of interest to the lab. Last year, we went through a book, chapter-by-chapter, and took turns presenting/lecturing on the chapters to each other. This year, I have a couple postdocs who want to teach some basics of some of the techniques we use in the lab. In past years, I have added time onto our weekly group meetings to go over professional development such as drafting a CV or guidelines on applying for fellowships or other things. Since the students organize and ask for these types of things, I think they must enjoy and get something from them.

So, what do you do? Post here in the comments, and I will use them for future posts on this topic. I know there are a myriad ways to have a group meeting – let’s hear yours! To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button. If you haven’t been getting updates, WordPress might have lost you (sorry). Please feel free to follow again!

How to Meet with your Advisor

Conference_de_londresSo, I’m on sabbatical. OK, you know. And, I’ve been having meetings with students over SkyFaceGoogleHangoutTimepe. And, I have to say that, while it is frustrating to be 3000 miles away from the lab which has definitely led to some problems, in general, my individual meetings with students have gotten… better. We have every-other-weekly individual one-on-one meetings, and the students are coming more prepared and more focused than they ever did when I was there in person (exceptions abound, of course). I can speculate all day about the reasons this may be happening, but the fact that it is happening has exposed some best-practices for having meetings with your advisor. I will describe those best practices here, but before I do, I would like to point to a couple posts of related interest including: Effective Meetings, StateOfLab, mentoring.

Bring your notebook: I can’t tell you the number of times I am meeting with a student and I ask a question about their work, results, protocol, and they say, I can’t remember. My response is: no shit. OK, not really. I say that in my head. See, that isn’t surprising because you aren’t supposed to remember everything. That is what a lab notebook is for. The beauty of having a lab notebook is that you don’t need to remember. Indeed, relying on your memory will get you in huge, huge trouble, because our memories are faulty, not everything makes it into long-term memory, and you can only remember about 7 things in your short-term. When the student says they can’t remember, I usually ask if they wrote it in their notebook. That elicits a response of, “oh yeah!” At this point, it is prudent to go get your notebook, but this whole time-sucking activity can be avoided if the student would just bring their notebook to every meeting. So, always bring your notebook to the meeting.

Bring your data: In addition to your notebook, it is best to bring your data with you. Most data nowadays is electronic, so that means bringing your laptop and hard drive. Many labs have some sort of intranet or server to share data. If you upload your data to that well-before the meeting, it will be uploaded and can be downloaded in a timely manner. You may have a lot of data, so you might need to pre-sort. Don’t spend time at the meeting clicking open random files to find the right one. You should have noted before hand in your notebook interesting and remarkable data sets. Also, make sure you have characteristic data sets. It always happens that some look “better” than others, but you should also show the “quintessential” data set. Maybe you are past the raw data part, but there will still be things to show. Show your analysis method. Show your analyzed data. Describe how you calculated the error bars. If the data is a distribution, is it Gaussian? What functional form does the data fit to? Is that reasonable? What is the goodness of fit? Your advisor should not only know how you did this, they should want to know. If you make a mistake, they can catch it early and help you correct it. That is always preferable to finding out after submitting the paper, accepting the paper, or publishing the paper!

Be prepared: Bringing your notebook and data are a part of being prepared for your meeting. But, they are not the only way to be prepared. You should have an idea of what you want to talk about. Do you want to show off your amazing data? Do you have a question about how to analyze your data? Are you worried that a recent experiment isn’t replicating the first couple of experiments properly? Have a list of topics and questions you need to address with your advisor. And make sure you understand how you got the data you are showing. All the questions I describe about data above are things you should be prepared to discuss. Again, you do not need to memorize these things, but be able to quickly locate them in your notebook or within your computer.

Take notes: I can’t tell you how many times I have been talking to a student and giving the most brilliant, insightful information about their work, and then I say, “You got that?” And they look at me, with no pen in hand, no notebook open, no ability to write or recall the rainbows of knowledge I just spewed from my brain. Actually, many times, I diagram things on the white board when I am talking. In a sense, I am taking notes – or making notes, but these are written from my perspective. It is far better if the student takes their own notes. We can always take a picture of the board, and you can paste it in your notebook, but my hieroglyphics might not make sense next week or next month. Best to take your own notes and paste the board in under.

Actively listen – restate and seek confirmation: For any conversation where you want to make sure that all parties are understanding, it is always best to use active listening. This is where you basically double check that you are on the same page. You should restate their ideas or instructions in your own words, and seek confirmation  for what you understand to be the sentiments of the other parties. This is important to do in any conversation, but especially one where instructions are being given or you truly need to ensure that you do the right thing.

Prioritize: Before you leave the meeting, it is best that you prioritize your plan of action and double check that is the right priority for your advisor, too. All too often, a student leaves the office with a long list of action items, but no priority on how to attack them. Best to check the priority before you leave to make sure you are working on the right thing first on the list.

When working from a distance, I have found that, in addition to the things described above, a few extra things are needed.

Send protocols: Because I cannot look at your notebook, I need some information on how you did your assay. I have found with several students over the past semester that I thought I was helping to troubleshoot why their experiments weren’t working. They told me, verbally, what they were doing, but I couldn’t see the notebook or what they were actually doing. The advice I gave them turned out to not help at all. After a couple weeks, and several failed attempts to fix things, I realized that I needed more information on what they were doing. Turns out, the affirmative statements they made when I asked how they were doing their experiments were not the whole story. What I was really lacking was the protocol of how they were doing their experiments. Luckily, all the students were actually taking good notes and using printed protocols. (There is no helping someone who doesn’t write anything down!) Once I got the protocol, I realized why all my advice wasn’t working. The protocols were completely effed. Much of this was either a new protocol or a specific variation of a worked out protocol that drifted way out of the bounds of reasonable. Most of the time, the student was doing something that was fundamentally “unstable” such as pipetting 0.2 ul or something equally prone to uncertainty.

Send slides: Because I cannot look at all your data, it is best when students send a powerpoint with representative data and analyzed data. Most of my students have gotten used to this, because I usually have weekly group meetings where everyone presents every week and they have to have one slide each (meetings, meetings). Unfortunately, sometimes this means they only send me one slide, but it is better than no slides.

Share your screen: Another way to effective communicate and share data and knowledge is to share your screen with your student. I have done this several times, especially when showing a student a new data analysis. But, the students can also do that with me to share data. When doing this, the same rules as above for bringing and pre-selecting the data need to be done. A word of caution – when using GoogleHangouts, you must pick the application, and you can only share that application – it is annoying. Skype is better at this.

Let me re-iterate: Take Notes! Actively listen! It is so much more important for the student to take notes and to check what you heard when the advisor is a little head on a screen. Once, during my sabbatical, I was talking to a student. As I was vomiting pearls of wisdom, the student looked up and said, “Wait! I need my notebook to take notes!” The student ran out of the room to grab the notebook, and began scribbling furiously upon returning. Of course, I didn’t say anything about the notebook, because I had no idea that the notebook wasn’t there. I could tell that notes weren’t being taken, but it didn’t occur to me to say anything. Since that time, this student has never forgotten their notebook again at an online meeting. A lot of the follow-up I have been doing has been taking pictures of my notebook where I took notes and sending that. Often those notes are multi-colored and with illustrations.

So, this is what I have come up with. But, I am sure I am missing something. If so, post here with a comment!! Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

Management: Progressive Discipline

Skamvrån_av_Carl_Larsson_1894OK, the final topic from my management course that was new to me was Progressive Discipline. I am sure my friends in industry and the private sector will scoff and laugh at my ignorance, but I had no idea what this was. I also had no idea how to enforce what I wanted to happen in my group. If someone didn’t listen to me (they were insubordinate – another word that I “knew” but didn’t use before my management course), I would ask them to change and when they didn’t I would fire them. It wasn’t usually one strike and you are out, but I would not have any nuanced response. I didn’t have the  knowledge of progressive discipline.

So what is progressive discipline? Progressive discipline is the process of using increasingly severe steps or measures when an employee fails to correct a problem after being given a reasonable opportunity to do so. As you know, I have a Research Group Rules document, when I have described in the past (described here and here). After learning about progressive discipline, I updated the lab rules to include a section about it. Here is what the new section says:

Progressive discipline

  • Failure to comply with these rules or other requests made by me or failure to fulfill your assigned duties will result in the initiation of progressive discipline.
  • Warning. First indication of a problematic action will result in a conversation with me. A follow-up email to you from me will follow the conversation so that you are clear about the problem and the solution.
  • Official Verbal Warning. If the problematic actions persist, you will receive a verbal warning. The verbal warning will be documented and the documentation will be sent to your union (postdocs or other unionized workers), to your graduate program director (graduate students), to your undergraduate/major program director (undergraduate) and to the departmental personnel and business directors.
  • Official Written Warning. If the problematic actions persist after the verbal warning, you will receive a written warning. The written warning will be documented and the documentation will be sent to your union (postdocs or other unionized workers), to your graduate program director (graduate students), to your undergraduate/major program director (undergraduate) and to the departmental personnel and business directors.
  • Dismissal. If the problematic actions persist after the written warning, you will be dismissed from the laboratory. The dismissal will be documented and the documentation will be sent to your union (postdocs or other unionized workers), to your graduate program director (graduate students), to your undergraduate/major program director (undergraduate) and to the departmental personnel and business directors.
  • For undergraduates receiving a grade for credit, a verbal warning or worse will result in a lower grade for the semester.
  • There are two offenses that will result in immediate discipline and possible dismissal from the lab:
    • Safety violations. Actions that endanger the safety of the lab, yourself, or your labmates will result in immediate dismissal from the lab. You have many opportunities to learn how to conduct your experiments safely in the lab including Health and Safety training classes and online courses, the BootCamp, and this Lab Rule guide. Safety violations will not be tolerated.
    • Insubordination. Failure to perform your duties as outlined in your contract, in this Lab Rule guide, or verbally conveyed from WomanOfScience will result in immediate verbal warning (see above) or higher level discipline depending on history of insubordination.

This all sounds very strict and formal, but I think it is better than randomly firing people, which is what I felt like was my only recourse before. For each type of discipline that requires documentation, there are example letters with fill-in-the-blank regions to put the name and date and to fill in the offense. Examples can be found at your HR office and online.  Another note is that the written warning is a big step because it the last straw before termination/dismissal. For that step, you must have a lot of documentation. This is partly why you are documenting about your people (see last post), but also, you may need corroboration from others in the group.

Although this may feel like gossip or talking behind someone’s back, you need to gather this evidence. If someone keeps leaving the door to the -80C freezer open, you must find out who is doing it. If all fingers point to ParticularPerson, you must be able to find out to have a talk with ParticularPerson. Often other students in the group don’t want to rat out someone else, but you need to tell them that you cannot remedy the situation if you do not know the specifics. It is important that they feel comfortable telling you what is going on. Further, if you ask all the people in the lab, and 4/5 say it was ParticularPerson, but ParticularPerson says it was SomeoneElse or there isn’t an issue, then you have decent evidence that it was probably ParticularPerson doing the offensive activity.

Finally, different unions might have different rules for progressive discipline and the steps in the process. That being said, I have never once had a union-rep come to talk to me about this or tell me what the steps are. They are praying on your ignorance. If you fire a unionized person without using progressive discipline, and that person complains to the union, you could get in serious trouble and risk being sued by the union. Make sure you are aware of what the unions require.

So, what do you think? Going to try progressive discipline? It can really work to turn someone around and help you manage them better. It can also relieve you of guilt and stress because you have a rubric for getting rid of someone. You don’t have to sit with a terrible, lazy, nogoodnick in your research group waiting for the grant or contract to expire. You can take action and cover your butt at the same time. If you have other ideas, post or comment here. To get an email whenever I post, push the +Follow button.

Management: Documentation

documentationMy management course is now officially over. I feel that I learned a lot. I think I will actually be a better manager. That doesn’t mean I am terrible now, or that I will be perfect later, but I have gained the knowledge of several specific activities/actions that I can do to be a better manager. The last two things I will endeavor to do better are (1) documentation and (2) progressive discipline. In this post, I will discuss my new approach to documentation.

When I took the management course I thought I was documenting what was going on in the lab enough. Here is what I was doing before:

  1. I have people give weekly lab meetings. They make a weekly Powerpoint that goes into a Dropbox Folder.
  2. Everyone is supposed to write a report at the end of each semester and at the end of the summer. The report has specific things for them to write about. It includes them doing a self-evaluation.
  3. When I met with people one-on-one, I took notes in some notebook.

But, I realize that I can’t remember what people in the lab did over the entire last year. I can only remember the last 3 months. And, I don’t go back to look at those things they produced before. Sometimes they don’t do what I ask, and I don’t have Powerpoints in Dropbox or end of semester reports. Then, I have nothing to document what they did. Further, these are all self-documentations of stuff they did as they saw it. It is useful, but they are not necessarily my impressions of what they did or (more importantly) how they performed. I realized I needed a new system.

My first thought was to have paper files for each person where I write my thoughts and comments, but then I was worried my office might look like that picture above, and decided against it. Instead, I asked around at the management course, and a couple of people there were already documenting things well. They have a word document (or other program- pick your favorite) for each employee. Whenever the person does something good, they write it down and date it. If the person does something bad, they write it down and date it. By the end of the year, when they need to do an annual review, they have all the goods and bads documented, and can just pull up the document and read it to remind themselves.

Based on this approach, I made my own plan. Here is my plan:

  1. I have a word document for each person.
  2. When I have a one-on-one meeting with the person where we discuss what will be done, experiments, things for graduate program, tasks, I will write it up there and date it. For tasks and assignments, I will copy and paste it into an email, so we are all on the same page.
  3. I will also monthly or twice a month write my impressions from the most recent weeks. I will say things like, “GradStudent did a good job this week on xyz experiment,” or, “Postdoc was OK, but needs to focus on ABC and defocus from LNMO. Jenny will have a discussion with Postdoc about this within a week.”
  4. I will use this information for grad students when talking to their committees. I will use this information for postdocs when writing their letters for jobs. I will use this information for undergrads when writing letters of recommendation or determining their grades for semester research credits. I will use this information for technicians when performing their yearly evaluations.
  5. I will use this information when documenting performance and if I need to implement “progressive discipline.” What is progressive discipline? Tune in next time to find out more.

So, what do you think of this plan? I think the hardest part will be remembering to do it. Remember to bring your computer. Remember to open the document while talking. Remember to make notes on the person once a month or so. I have held on for a month so far.

Are their any suggestions you would recommend? I am open to alternatives. Comment or post here. Also, to receive an email every time I post (I promise to be better once I get over the current hump in work load), push the +Follow button.

Management: Delegation

I was feeling pretty down about how crappy my meetings are. I am glad to hear that not all academic meetings are so bad from readers and friends. It gives me hope that my meetings will go better if I try and practice good meeting habits.

The same week, we also talked about delegation. As bad as my meetings are, my ability to delegate was inversely awesome! We took a little quiz, and I scored great on it. Take the quiz here:

Delegation Quiz:

1. I spend more time than I should doing the work of my students. Y N
2. I often find myself working while my students are idle. Y N
3. I believe I should be able to personally answer any question about any project in my group. Y N
4. My inbox mail is usually full. Y N
5. My students usually take the initiative to solve problems without my direction. Y N
6. My research group operates smoothly when I am away. Y N
7. I spend more time working on details than I do on planning or supervising. Y N
8. My students feel they have sufficient authority over personnel, finances, facilities, and other resources for which they are responsible. Y N
9. I have bypassed my students by making decisions that were part of their job. Y N
10. If I were incapacitated for an extended period of time, there is someone who could take my place. Y N
11. There is usually a big pile of work requiring my action when I return from an absence. Y N
12. I have assigned a task to a student mainly because it was distasteful to me. Y N
13. I know the interests and goals of every student in the research group. Y N
14. I make it a habit to follow up on jobs I delegate. Y N
15. I delegate complete projects as opposed to individual tasks whenever possible. Y N
16. My students are trained to maximum potential. Y N
17. I find it difficult to ask others to do things. Y N
18. I trust my students to do their best in my absence. Y N
19. My students are performing below their capacities. Y N
20. I nearly always give credit for a job well done. Y N
21. My students refer more work to me than I delegate to them. Y N
22. I support my students when their authority is questioned. Y N
23. I personally do those assignments one I can or should do. Y N
24. Work piles up at some point in my operation. Y N
25. All students know what is expected of them in order of priority. Y N



Give yourself one point each if you answered “Yes” for #5, 6, 8, 10, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 20, 22, 23, 25

Give yourself one point each is you answered “No” for #1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 9, 11, 12, 17, 19, 21, 24.

Score 20-25: You have excellent delegation skills that help the efficiency and morale of your research group. You maximize your effectiveness as a leader and help develop the full potential of your students.

Score 15-19: Your score is adequate, but not excellent. To correct, review the questions you did not receive a point for and take appropriate steps so as to not repeat the mistakes.

Score <14: Inability to delegate is reducing your effectiveness as a leader. This results in lower performance. Determine if you are unwilling to relinquish power and why. Inability to delegate can cause dissatisfaction among your students. They will not develop job interest and important skills unless you improve.

How did you score? I had a 22/25. The other classmates, who all work in regular offices or as crew managers, were grumbling about my awesome score. One person said, “I know what the correct answers are, but I answered honestly,” (not meanly, but in a dejected sort of way). The thing is, delegation is essential to running a research group. If you do not properly delegate, you will probably not succeed at running a research group in academic science.

The reason for this is two fold:

1. You cannot do all the things to get this job done by yourself. You will not be able to do all the research, write all the papers, make all the figures, write all the grants, teach all the courses, review all the papers and grants, serve on all the committees, yadda yadda yadda. Delegation is a matter of survival.

2. Your job is to train people. The best way to train someone to replace you is to give them some parts of your job to try out. This means not just doing the research, but all practice writing the papers and making figures, practice giving the talks, even practice reviewing papers. These things will have to be done with more or less supervision depending on the student’s abilities and maturity in research. But, by delegating tasks, the student will learn, feel apart of the team, and you will get more work done.

Another reason why I can delegate more than my peers in the management course is that running a lab is like running a small business. I can run it how I see fit. Delegating certain responsibilities of the job to my students make me more effective and efficient, so I take full advantage. I can also hire and fire, which many of my peers cannot do. If someone really can’t handle any task I give them (including research), I let them go. I don’t think it does anyone any good to keep someone in the lab who cannot make any contribution at all.

What do you think? Is delegation important? How well do you delegate? Is there a difference between delegation and training? Post or comment here. To receive an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Management: Difficult Convos

ConvosOne of the most important and difficult things about being the boss is that you have to tell people things they might not like to hear. I have written about this before, but this time, I am going to actually have some advice for how to conduct these types of conversations from my recent supervisors management course.

One thing I learned from the course is that in the corporate world people don’t get feedback very often. Sometimes people do things incorrectly or poorly for years without being told. Supervisors often give a performance evaluation once per year, and if they chicken out about telling it straight, people can go for years without getting correction. One main point of this class was to say that supervisors need to give rapid and specific feedback to employees as soon as possible. That means having a conversation with the person as soon as possible addressing the issues that are occurring.

At first, I was surprised to hear that feedback is so slow in corporate situations, because I feel like in scientific research, we are constantly giving feedback to make sure our students are doing the work correctly. Then I thought about other things you have to give feedback on, personal things that you may not want to have to say. Like, a student who won’t wear shoes at his desk. These types of things are easier to try to ignore, but probably shouldn’t be ignored.

OK, so what is the best way to give difficult feedback? Here is a synthesized strategy:

  1. Make a plan for the conversation and write it down (an agenda) so that you don’t forget or lose track.
    1. First, start with something positive that your student is doing. Are they punctual? Did they come up with a good idea recently?
    2. Second, state the issue. If there are several, limit each conversation to 2 issues at most. You should have several motivations for why the person should make the change you need. If you are worried the person will be challenging, you should make sure you understand all the expectations and rules for the person.  Example: If your student is not coming into lab enough, you could remind him/her that the lab is a team that that other people rely on him/her to be present. If the person is a senior personnel in the lab, the junior people will need him/her to be present for safety reasons.
    3. Finally, make plans for corrective actions or ways to help the person overcome the issue. For example, if the student is missing time in the lab for a personal reason, perhaps the person needs to take some personal time to figure out the situation. Maybe the person really didn’t realize that they needed to work in the lab and was working at a coffee shop, but they were not letting you know. Clarifying the expectations of the position and setting clear methods of communication.
  1. Control Your Emotions.

You cannot have these conversations if you are emotional. You have to stay calm. If you are very angry about their person’s behavior, you should give yourself time to calm down before you have the conversation. For instance, I know that I am more likely to get upset if I don’t get enough sleep. Thus, I will cancel a meeting over a difficult conversation if I did not get enough sleep or have other stressors. If you feel like you are losing control, ask to stop and reschedule the meeting for another time when you are in control.

  1. Start positive.

When you get in the meeting, use your plan and start with the positive thing about the person.

  1. Focus on Actions and Behaviors – not on personality.
    1. Use your plan to make sure you are only discussing the behavior of the person. What are they doing that needs to be corrected.
    2. Most importantly, the discussion can not be about their personality nor about how you are feeling or how they perceive things.
    3. If they try to derail you, make sure you stay on topic of the behavior and the corrective actions. For example, they might say, “Well, no one else has to be in the lab. How come I am the only one being singled out?” You can say that this discussion is not about other people, but about their actions.  Such derailing comments or details are meant to try to make you defocus from what the real issue is. They are defense mechanisms, but you have to be strong against them. It can be very difficult. Role playing or practicing with someone else may help if you are particularly susceptible to these types of comments.
  1. Stop Talking. Seek Confirmation.

 Once you outline the issues, make sure that your student understands what you are saying. You may have to get them to say it back to you. This step is especially important if you are an extrovert and the student is an introvert. They may need time to think about what you said and process it. If you are an extrovert who hates silences in the conversation, you will have to try to control the urge to speak while they process. If you are an introvert and they are an extrovert, they might become defensive quickly. Make sure they understand exactly which actions or behaviors are being described and don’t let them derail you.

  1. Reaffirm your confidence in them.

 This is an affirmation of the positive. You can say something like, “You have been doing great work, but I just need to see more of you in the lab, so that the lab can work more productively as a team.”

  1. Determine the reason for the behavior.

 This is part of your plan (see #1). You should try to figure out why the behavior is occurring? What is the underlying reason for the actions that are not good. Is it that an expectation was not conveyed clearly? Is it there a personal reason for the change in behavior? Is there a new policy that was not made clear?

  1. Suggest solutions to solve problem.

Sometimes it can be as easy as letting the person know, and having them say, “Oh, I didn’t realize. I will fix that.” Unfortunately, sometimes the problem is more difficult, and you need to suggest solutions that will help rectify the actions. If it is a personal issue, you have to be able to suggest a solution without trying to be involved in the problem. Sometimes, that just means they need time, or they need to take sick leave or family leave. You should make sure that the expectations of the leave are clear, or you will find yourself back having another conversation about how they need to come back to work. Set timelines for any alterations and make sure the changes jive with the person’s job expectations and any union contract rules. This is what I mean by making sure you know all the expectations and rule for the person’s position. Many people in academia (grad students and postdocs) are now unionized. Make sure you are aware of all the rules for the union so that you comply with the rules. Have your ducks in a row before the meeting, if possible.

  1. Document the feedback.
    1. After the conversation and the agreed upon solution, you need to document the solution and let all parties who need to know the result in writing. This usually means sending an email to all parties, but if the person’s issue is that they don’t check email, print a copy and give it to them.
    2. In the email/letter make sure that you detail what the issue was (what behavior or action was not good and was discussed) and also document what was decided for the solution with as much detail as possible. If the student is taking time for a personal issue, make sure that you set specific dates and times for expected return to full time.

Notice that there is a right and wrong time to communicate over email. When documenting the conversation and the solutions, you email. Do not email to discuss. That is never good! These conversations should be done in person and in private – in your office is probably best with the door closed.  Don’t have these conversations in the lab in front of other people.

There is a big, big difference between being a research PI and being a supervisor in an office. For instance, we are actively trying to change our supervises through active training and mentoring. Supervisors in other settings cannot expect to change their personnel, but should work with the people they have and place them in the best positions and project to play up to their strengths. As PIs, we are suppose to build on strengths, but also work on weaknesses (such as writing or presentation skills). PIs have to provide constant constructive criticism of our students to help them grow and to learn. This type of criticism is another type of feedback about the science and the work, and it is better to do in public so that the entire lab can learn from the scientific mistakes of the others in the group. This type of feedback is not personal and is not really behavioral. Unfortunately, sometimes students can be very sensitive to the critiques offered about their work. They take it personal. If you sense that your student is becoming defensive or upset about your feedback, it is best to probably address this in a private conversation. You may need to think about how you are delivering your critiques – ask them about exactly what they are reacting to and why they are getting defensive. Don’t let them derail you or avoid the answer – make them be specific, or else you cannot change. It is also typical that the student is actually being too sensitive. The student may need to think about how they are receiving your feedback.

So, what do you think? Is this doable? It will take practice. I printed out a cheat sheet and tacked to behind where most of my students sit in my office. I am hoping that will help me stay focused and stick to the plan for my conversations. Post or comment your thoughts. To receive an email every time I post, click the +Follow button.

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