Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘laboratory 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!

 

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: 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:

YES NO
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

 

Scoring:

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.

Tag Cloud