Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘Management’

Management: Effective Meetings

hold-a-meetingThis week at my supervisory management course, we learned about something I wish every single one of my colleagues would learn: how to have an effective meeting. As I am one of only a couple of faculty members in this course, it was quite startling to compare/contrast the types of meetings I am used to, to the types of meetings my colleagues on staff have. I would say that many faculty meetings have a lot of talking. In fact, in recent meetings that I have run (poorly), all I did as the meeting lead was stand at the front, mentally note who raised they hand when, and make sure people spoke in order and didn’t trample over each other. We spoke for over an hour! Just talking one after another. I also took notes in a notebook or on a black board so that I could transcribe them later. There are so many things wrong with how I run my meetings, it is ridiculous. But, these meetings are weird, because they are between a bunch of people who are basically equals who all like to talk – a lot, and all think that they are the smartest person in the room. That makes faculty meetings harder. When I have a lab meeting, where I am clearly the top of the hierarchy, they run very differently – maybe more like my counterparts’ meetings. I run the meeting, I set the agenda. People talk and comment, but I control it and don’t let it derail. Actually, sometimes I do let it derail because I like to make a fun environment and chatting is part of that.

What is the definition of an effective meeting? Meetings are effective when the goals of the meeting are achieved using a minimal amount of time and all participants are satisfied. Most meetings can be classified into two types: Information and Decision Making. Information meetings are used to convey information to a group or convince a group of something. Decision Meetings are used for goal setting, problem solving, and action planning. Most of the meetings I seem to have in academia, both with my research group and with colleagues on committees seem to be the second type. Straight information is (thankfully) usually conveyed in email format. Although sometimes it is useful to convey information in verbal forms (if it might get people upset, for instance).

Below are 10 characteristics of Effective Meetings. Here is a fun exercise: score your typical faculty meetings using the following rubric:

0 points if this never happens/never done for meetings,

1 point if you are not so good at this or this rarely happens in your meetings,

2 points if you are OK at this, or this occasionally happens in your meetings,

3 points for being generally good at this and this normally happens in your meetings,

4 points is your meetings always have this.

Score       Attribute

____     Seating in the room is arranged so that every person can see everyone else.

____     Equipment is available at the front of the room to record ideas/plans.

____     Your meeting has an agenda.

____     The agenda has time estimates for discussing each topic of the meeting.

____     At least 1-2 times in the meeting, there is a probe into how effective the meeting is going.

____     During the meeting someone records the ideas and decisions of the meeting. The data is prepared and handed out afterward to all concerned.

____     Meeting notes indicate who has agreed to do what before the next meeting.

____     Dates of future meetings are set in advance so people can arrange to attend.

____     Those in attendance decide who else should be involved for future meetings and those people are included.

____     At the end of the meeting, people review and confirm who is doing what.

 

So, how did you score? I score quite badly (about 13 out of possible 40) – getting a zero in many of the attributes. I often do not have an agenda and it certainly doesn’t have times set for each part. We always have a place to write notes – chalk/white board and projector, but most of the time someone doesn’t take note. I usually take notes, but sometimes I don’t have the time to transcribe and distribute them. Have you ever been to a meeting where it was stopped and someone asked how it was progressing? Big, fat goose egg on that one for me. Never, ever happened ever. Dates of meetings set in advance. Does 24 hours ahead of time count?

Are these things feasible to do at meetings in academia? I think they are, and I think it would make meetings more useful and less dreaded. I am going to endeavor to implement these attributes into my meetings from now on. I hope my colleagues say, “I love having meetings with WomanOfScience running them. They are so efficient and effective. We get stuff done without wasting time!” OK, that might be wishful thinking! What do you think? Post or comment here. To get an email every time I post, click 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.

Management: Know Thyself and Themselves

Myers-BriggsThe first week of the supervisory management course was all about getting to know who you are and who the people you manage are. The course I am taking decided to go the classic route: Myers-Briggs. The Myers-Briggs is a personality test that classifies your personality using 4 descriptors. Also, did you know that Myers and Briggs were a mother-daughter science pair? Pretty cool. Anyway, in the test, you answer some questions, and it uses your answers to give you some feedback about your personality. You can find an online version here. Other versions cost money, and are more detailed, but they are pretty similar. I should say that almost everyone I talked to who took a management or leadership course started by taking some sort of personality test. It didn’t really matter on the exact type of test, but they all basically had the same result – getting to know yourself.

After you take the test, you get put into personality type categories. For the Myers-Briggs, the four categories are:

Extravert (E) or Introvert (I)

Sensing (S) of Intuition (N)

Thinking (T) or Feeling (F)

Judging (J) or Perceiving (P)

Some of the names are unfortunate because there are good/bad connotations, but you have to understand that each one is a measure of how you intrinsically deal with the world in a variety of ways. Also, the personality type you get depends on where you are and what you are doing. For instance, my personal personality type was different when I was at home with my kids than when I was at work.

Extravert (E) or Introvert (I): This is about energy. How do you draw energy and what spends your energy. If you are an extrovert, you get energized by hanging out with people and talking. Being alone is draining for an extravert.  If you are an introvert, hanging out with people is tiring and takes up energy, but being alone is revitalizing.

A fun exercise to do with your research group: Have them line up based on how extroverted or introverted they believe they are with extreme cases at the far ends. Working with the 2-3 people nearest them have them answer this question: How do you feel and act if you have to go to a party for work? Do you want to go to the party? When you are there, who do you talk to? The answers are quite interesting. You will find the introverts will not want to go to the party and will only talk to people they already know. Extraverts will be fine or excited about going to the party and will talk to all new people.

Things to think about when managing or talking to extraverts: They think out loud and may say things off the cuff but not truly believe them. They may seem more into or excited about things than they really are. They often hate silence in conversations.

Things to think about when managing or talking to introverts: They are more likely to think before speaking and may need time to think about the ideas before they answer. They may seem unexcited or less attached to ideas than they actually are. They are comfortable with silence in conversations.

Sensing (S) of Intuition (N): This is about information gathering. How do you notice or take in information about the world around you. Do you notice the forest (broad, general) or the trees (individual components, close). If you are a sensing, you are interested in the details and have a high attention to detail – you are interested in the trees.  If you are an intuition, you are interested in generalizations and larger concepts – you are interested in the forest.

A fun exercise to do with your research group: Have them line up based on how sensing (detailed) or intuition (general) they believe they are with extreme cases at the far ends. Working with the 2-3 people nearest them have them answer this question: Give directions from the room you are in to your house. Sensing people will give very specific directions using cardinal directions, street names, and landmarks. They will likely even give directions about how to get to the street from the room. Extreme intuition people will give very general directions – maybe point toward their house and say, “that way.” In my research group, people were pretty in the middle, which I think is a good thing for experimental scientists. They are focused enough to see the details to follow the directions correctly, but are interested in the big picture about what the experiment is saying.

Things to think about when managing or talking to sensing: They will need a lot of details. Giving general directions about what you want them to do, will not work. If you are an extreme intuition person, you will have to try to be a bit more specific when talking to students who are sensing.

Things to think about when managing or talking to intuition: They will be fine with less detail, and will think you are micromanaging, if you give them too much detail. On the other hand, they might not be able to determine the details and might not have an attention for detail needed for complex experiments or analysis.

Thinking (T) or Feeling (F): This is about decision making. What do you consider most when making a decision? Do you rely on facts? Or are people’s feelings more important to you? If you are thinking, you make decisions based on the facts and that is more important than people’s feelings. You will be a hard-ass, if you need to be. If you are feeling, the most important thing to you is how others feel. The facts are not as important as making others happy.

A fun exercise to do with your research group: Have them line up based on how thinking or feeling they believe they are with extreme cases at the far ends. Working with the 2-3 people nearest them have them answer this question: How do you pick a gift for someone else? Thinking people will try to pick out something useful and extreme thinkings will just opt for money – the ultimate useful gift. Feeling people will not just want to buy a personal gift, they will often want to make the gift for the person. As a follow-up question, ask them: Do you want to be present when the person opens the gift?

Things to think about when managing or talking to thinking: They will value and be convinced by facts over emotions of feelings. Use data and facts for examples and to convince them of your decisions.

Things to think about when managing or talking to feeling: They will care more about the personal feelings of people. You can make emotional pleas with them to convince them of your decisions.

Judging (J) or Perceiving (P): This is about how you organize yourself and your work. Judging people will pursue things linearly. They make lists, and they have a straight-forward approach to solving a problem. They don’t necessarily have clean desks, but the mess is organized. They prefer deadlines and might self-impose deadlines. Perceiving people work sporadically seemingly on disparate parts of the project. They can seem disorganized and often work best under pressure of a deadline.

There is no fun exercise on this. Most people think that the judging way of doing things, with making lists and approaching problems linearly, is the best way to go about getting work done. Because of that, most people will think they are judging, even if they aren’t.

Things to think about when managing or talking to judging: They will work best when given direct instructions in a linear fashion. It is best to give them deadlines and specific straightforward instructions.

Things to think about when managing or talking to perceiving: They will work best on a variety of things within a bigger project at the same time. They will need help keeping track of what they have already done, and making sure they don’t lose track of the tasks needed to be done. Many people are naturally perceiving, but try to force themselves to be judging. By understanding their true nature, you will at least understand their natural tendency, even if you both agree that a linear fashion is the best way – it might not be possible for a perceiving person to perform their tasks linearly.

 

I did these activities with my lab and I asked them to take the Myers-Briggs. They thought it was fun and interesting. It was a great way to get to know their peers and how they experience the world. It was super fun! I have a WomanOfScience friend who says she has always done this with her research group, and it really helps her to understand where her students are coming from and how they make decisions and can be convinced and persuaded of what is best for them (this is important when giving feedback – more on that in future posts!).

What do you think? Do you do this? Do you already know how your students are? Post or comment here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

More Management Stuff

S._Sgt._Lorraine_Robitaille,_switchboard_supervisor,_from_Duluth,_Minnesota,_looks_down_the_line_of_the_Victory..._-_NARA_-_199009Over the past year and a half of this blog (has it been that long?) I have had a number of posts about research group management (i.e. here, here, here, here, herehere, and here). Wow! That’s a lot. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to manage my group well, but I don’t always think that I succeed. I had previously lamented before that I could not find a course locally to help with leadership or management. Well, I am happy to say that I have found and I am currently enrolled and taking such a course at my university.

How I found a course: Every year, we get a flyer about workplace development at UState. In some years, I went through it looking for interesting courses that would help me, but found nothing. Other years, I was so overwhelmed with stuff and getting tenure that I have no idea if i even got the flyer. This year, I noticed, looked, and saw two courses. One was half day workshop on stuff that seemed useful, but the one I signed up for meets 7 weeks for three hour sessions and is about being a Supervisor. A supervisor! That is what I am! I was using the wrong word before. This is why I stink at Googling. Anyway, I found the course and signed up.

Who this course is for: This course is geared toward anyone at UState who supervises others. It is also geared toward staff. The course has a majority of participants who are on campus staff, several participants who work for local non-profits and the local town governments, and two professors – myself and another WomanOfScience I convinced to take the course. The sessions are 3 hours every week for 7 weeks, and the time is during a seminar that I normally attend, so I am giving up some things to attend this course. I was a bit worried that they wouldn’t professors take the course, but we were welcomed to the course.

Is it good?: We have had two sessions (I will talk more about them in follow-up posts), and I am very happy with it. I feel like I am learning a lot! I would highly recommend taking  course like this. Also, having the course mostly filled with “normal people” who do not live for their jobs, but rather deal with a 9-5 business is good. It is great to see that they have similar issues that academics have. The course is taught in an active learning style where we discuss in small groups, share with the class, role play, and often do kinesthetic activities. Also, even though it is 3 hours, the time flies by, because the topic is interesting and I am very excited in learning about it.

So, I will be giving some updates about both the lessons I am learning and the effectiveness of trying to implement these lessons over the next few weeks. Stay tuned to have a bad version of a second-hand management course. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Leadership, but not Administration

808px-Queen_Elizabeth_I_by_George_GowerAs I have lamented before, with the coming of tenure seems to be the loss of mentoring. There are a number of new pursuits one can attempt to achieve after attaining tenure, but before Full Professor. For instance, you can begin to take on leadership roles within larger, multi-PI grants or center grants. You will likely be assigned to lead some committees within the department or within the college. You might need to organize a conference. You might get elected to a national or international organization or committee. You can become an editor of a journal or edit a compilation book. You can write a book of your own. Indeed, fulfilling some of these activities may be required to become a Full Professor at your college or university. All of these endeavors require the ability to organize and lead other professors, researchers, or investigators.

In order to achieve this next level, and to enable better leadership and management within your research groups, we should learn some management and leadership skills. Presumably, we all manage our research groups, so we have some kind of management experience. We may or may not be good at it, though. I had a couple of good advisors from whom I picked up some better management techniques (through osmosis and not through any guided instruction). Likewise, I learned how not to manage a lab from a couple of bad advisors. But managing a group of younger, less-experienced researchers (despite the fact that they might not be physically younger than you, as my first postdocs were actually all older than me) is not the same as leading a group of peers or even senior colleagues.

I am looking for guidance on leadership, but very few leadership workshops or courses for academics are geared toward “normal” leadership, such as those I describe above. Most are pointed toward new or up-and-coming administrators. They are meant for aspiring Deans, Provosts, Presidents, Chancellors. Of course, we need leadership skills far before we approach that level. In fact, we should not be attempting to go for Head/Chair of the department, Dean, or other administrative position until after you are already a Full Professor. Being a Full Professor is often a requirement for many administrative positions, although there are a number of lower-level administrative positions that do not require you to be a Full Professor, but you will be limited.

So, how do you gain the skills you need to take on the next level of leadership? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Find and attend a leadership conference. These can be expensive and are often specific for those aspiring to become an administrator. Some are specific for women in administration, such as HERS, or the COACh program. General academic leadership workshops conducted by the American Council on Education (ACE) also exist. Many of these are EXPENSIVE, and you are not going to fund yourself to go. You need the university to support you to go.

2. Use a leadership workshop or conference on campus. More and more universities and schools are seeing that leadership skills are important for their faculty members. A number of schools have been having on campus workshops or short courses. From what I hear, you need to be invited and somehow picked at your school. This is where making sure that your on campus network is in tact and strong is very important.

3. Check your local business school. Many of the schools where you work have business or management schools. Business schools almost always have a leadership course. If you get to attend or sit in on a course for free, take advantage. Contact the professor and ask if you can audit the course. Unlike a short course or workshop, which might only be a week at most, a semester/quarter-long course will give you more time to learn management over a longer time. There will be assigned reading which you might not get to in a timely manner, but will be a good reading list for what you will need to know.

These are my thoughts, but what about yours? Do you have more management workshops that you know about that I missed? It might be good to have a better list. How about other ways those of us without access to special and costly workshops my attain some leadership skills? Any good books we should know about?

New Faculty Needs

WomenTrainingI was chatting with some new and not-so-new faculty recently. We all agreed that the first year of being a faculty is really tough. The toughest part about it is trying to figure out how to do, well, EVERYTHING. We go from being postdocs where we are trained how to conduct science research, write science papers, maybe mentor and give talks to having to… manage physical space, manage people, manage money, teach students, write grant proposals, and more. Many schools have an orientation to help new faculty “adjust” to the new role, but we found many topics to be sorely lacking. Below, I list and discuss several topics that could go in a new faculty handbook, if any such thing existed.

Laboratory Safety. When you get to your new position, you must take laboratory safety along with the students of various ages. If you are hoping that the lab safety officers are going to help you out and tell you the extra you need to know to manage the safety of a lab of other people, guess again. You are just going to get the same schpeel you got as a grad students and as a postdoc. But, you really need more. Like, how do you fill out all the extra paperwork the university will require for you to even do what you need to do? Need lasers? Extra paperwork. Need to use recombinant DNA? Lots of extra paperwork. Need to use cells? Mammalian cells? Even more paperwork for Biosafety Level 2+. If I was to design an orientation for new faculty, it would have an option to have a faculty-specific lab safety course where they emphasized the managerial aspects of lab safety and gave you examples of the paperwork you will be required to write out.

Grants and Contracts. Although there is some orientation about writing grants, it would be good to get some pointers on some of the drudgery of grant-writing. For instance, no one informed me at first about the 5 business-day rule.. you know… that you have to get your grant into the university grant office 5 business days in advance? Does the university require a full budget? Even if the granting agency doesn’t? How do you use the online submission software to submit your budget and proposal to the university for approval? Some of these items probably have training sessions of their own, so keep your eyes open, but a handbook of the basics would have helped a lot.

College Administrators and Their Duties. At the college level, there are likely various associate deans. Some may be assigned to new faculty development, some are designated for research, others are for teaching. Knowing which is which will help you when your lab needs new electrical or something comes up with the course you are teaching. Also, does your college have grant-writing support staff? Or is that housed at the departmental level? Where is the person who is supposed to help you write up budgets? It seems like a small thing that you should be able to do, but the rates of pay for you, your postdocs, and grad students change fairly often at my school, and I never seem to know who gets how much. Having someone to help with that is huge.

Departmental Administrator Duties. This was a big issue for me. Our department has several administrative assistants, but I had no idea who did what. I learned the hard way by asking the wrong person repeatedly and being rerouted. I really needed an ides of which admins did which jobs because our understaffed department had them all wearing multiple hats. Another issues was that sometimes they actually didn’t know how to do what I was asking. Sometimes it was because it really wasn’t their job. Even though my postdoc department had someone who’s job was to do XYZ thing, that responsibility was now mine here. Or, sometimes it was something they should do, but no one ever asked before. Since most faculty come into a department one at a time, having a department-level orientation is probably fairly uncommon. If you are a new faculty and you have a senior-faculty mentor – ask them and take notes on what they say. I wish I had done that. I wasted a lot of time running after administrative assistants asking them for stuff they didn’t do or know how to do.

If you made it through that, and your still want advice from me, check out these older posts with advice on starting your new job:

LabOf OneWhatDoIDo?YouBelongHiringWoesManagementSolutionsGettingCopiesOfGrants

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Organizing Your Group: Lab Rules

The presence of some species, like this crusta...

The presence of some species, like this crustacean, may be used as an environmental health indicator. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Does your research group or lab have rules? Codes of conduct? Specific ways you need students to do things, so that science happen faster and things do not get broken? How do these rules or codes get relayed to your students?

When I first started my lab, the codes of conduct for the lab were haphazardly passed from me to student A to student B. But, much like the telephone game, I started noticing things sounding funny out the other end. People didn’t seem to know how to wash dishes or run the autoclave. I started training people with a BootCamp (more on that in another post), and that was helpful to get everyone on the same starting page. But there were still other things that would come up, occur, or happen that made me realize that not all was covered.

I talked to other young faculty about the issue, and one ManOfScience told me that he just made a list of rules and requires everyone to read it. I was intrigued, but not convinced because this seemed very formal for a lab. I wasn’t against increased formality, but the idea of having explicit rules seemed counter to the rebellious and outsider nature of experimental lab work. Does that make sense? You may have felt that way when you read the title. I am sure most people don’t have “rules” for their labs, but I hope this post convinces you that it might be worthwhile.

Here is what convinced me: During our conversation, this ManOfScience told me what sold him on having explicit rules. At some point someone carelessly, accidentally started a fire in the lab. The fire was in the back of the lab, and other people were working in the front of the lab. The person in the back, knew there was a fire, ran out, and called 911 from afar. But, they never told the other people working in the front of the lab! This seems appalling, but panic can do crazy things. You think that you should not have to tell someone to tell the entire lab to evacuate when their is a fire, yet this story says that even the most obvious-seeming things may not be obvious to all people. To this ManOfScience, and to me, it is not worth losing your lab over something you could have easily told to your students. It isn’t worth losing a piece of equipment or a person. All labs have specialized equipment and facilities. You need to clearly tell students how to you these facilities and how to treat the equipment, the strains, cell lines, animals, human subjects. Some of these issues are covered in Environmental Health and Safety courses, but it is still worth reminding.

The following are specific sections that can go in your rules:

  • Personnel issues, work hours, vacation policy, and expectations
  • Group organization
  • Group meetings, seminars, journal clubs, and semester reports
  • Reagent preparation, sterilization, storage, and disposal
  • Freezer and refrigerator storage
  • Ordering and receiveing
  • Data collection and archiving
  • Lab safety and environmental health
  • Computers
  • BIg Equipment
  • Other equipment

At the end of the rules, I have a signature page. They have to sign and return the last page to me to verify that they read the rules. If they break the rules, this signature holds them accountable. I have them read and sign 3 times a year. I update the rules when I need to, and periodically review it myself. The rules are great for new people to get up to speed on how the lab works quickly. Most students appreciate being told directly what to expect and what the rules are. Students that don’t like it also don’t last long in the lab.

How about you? Any other rules or categories I missed? How do you tell people what’s up in the lab?

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