Beginner’s Mistakes: Lab Management

So most people who become junior faculty and set up their own labs have no management experience what-so-ever. Personnel management, resource management… time management – (although we may have the most experience with this last one). You go from one day, running your own project and maybe a rotating student or undergraduate… to running the whole show… with no instruction manual. It’s a little like having a baby- from one day to the next you are gifted with a whole new set of circumstances and you are just supposed to ‘know’ how to work the thing. This can either go ok, or it can go very, very wrong.

Nor do most scientists make an active effort to improve their lab management skills as time goes on- by this I mean doing more than on the job training and following their mentors (lousy in many cases) example. I’m asking myself WHY- when this is such an important part of our job, getting people to stay focused, motivating them, setting an expectation for civilized adult behavior and team work. I know, I know, you are saying that it takes time and effort- but COME ON- the people in your group are your most valuable resource. They do the work, they have to have their heads in the project and rely on each other- they aren’t so focused on all that when there is a whole bunch of drama and other childish nonsense going on between lab members.

I’ve been giving a whole bunch of advice about the job search.. so I thought I would change things up a bit and enter the confessional myself about what I might have done better when starting my lab- especially in the management department… So, here goes, I’m sure this will be humbling. Feel free to join me.

Top things drdrA wishes she had done differently (or could improve in her management style- let’s just stick with personnel for now)

1. Stronger supervision- keep people on track.. and on track with deadlines. I am struggling with how to do this without being a micromanager…. something I hated myself when I was a trainee.

2. Dealing more effectively with different work styles and different personality styles. I have a student who is very type A, and this is tricky to deal with when bench work doesn’t work like the book says it SHOULD. Ironically, I see myself in this student, I’ve been in her shoes… but I still don’t know how to teach her how to deal with this and how to keep her motivated.

3. Not overloading my most senior person in the lab. I have a marvelous postdoc … who am I kidding, she runs the whole place. But, I think I put too much on her in the sense that she does an extraordinary amount of work of her own, and trains everyone else on top of that, always particpates in big joint experiments when they are being done. I need to step in and help the junior graduate student myself, and keep her on the track.

4. Keeping to the invisible ‘professional’ line between myself and my employees. I’m pretty good about not fraternizing with employees (who’s got time?)- but even during the day- there should be no talking with student A about what student B needs to be doing. Should directly tell student B.

5. Setting the best example. I try and try, but always think of ways I could do better. I KNOW that kids learn best by example, grad students are no exception

Ok, I’m sure there are more, but now it’s your turn…

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15 thoughts on “Beginner’s Mistakes: Lab Management

  1. Another great post, and all good points.
    It took me a while to realize that ‘micromanagement’ translated to different things with different people, i.e. your Point#1 was very dependent on Point#2. This comes into play, for instance, during the conclusion a group meeting looking when the plan of action going forward is being discussed and agreed upon. In the after meeting one-on-one, for some people a broad overview is sufficient—“We need to have X experiments done by Y date–draw up your strategy and let’s look it over and do it”. For others, you need to draw out the milestones and timelines such as “We are at May5; the construct is simple and should be ready by May15; transfection and sorting should be done by May 22 etc”, and then follow up with them week to week to see where they are.
    Having been schooled largely in the sink-or-swim style of mentoring myself, it is a constant challenge to figure out where the micromanagement boundaries lie with different people.

  2. Excellent post. I think I have made all your mistakes and probably a few more, but am still trying to figure them all out.

  3. Jeezus, I think I’ve made all these mistakes just mentoring other grad students in the lab! Point #2 is particularly tricky because students do compare management styles, and I’ve heard two friends in the same lab complain that their PI treats them so differently. Knowing them, the PI is doing the right thing by giving one more freedom and one more guidance, but as a result they’re fed up about differential treatment! Great post, looking forward to more.

  4. Thanks for the comments Anonymoustache, BugDoc and Dr.J&Mrs. H…

    Now, each of you cough up one mistake you have made!

  5. Mistake? Moi? No way! I’m practically perfect in every possible way!
    Anyway, asking me to cough up one mistake is like asking a parent to choose from amongst his/her children—they are all so precious!
    Anyway, my situation is a bit different as I am not in an academic lab; I run a biotech start-up. I know many lab-situations are similar, but my early mistakes are more of the ‘getting licenses and other crap lined so we don’t waste time on the grant’ variety. I don’t know how interested people are in this—if there is interest, I’ll elaborate.
    BTW, the ‘micromanagement’ dilemma I mentioned earlier is based on mistakes I made in not following up aggressively on certain aspects of a project.

  6. Anonymoustache-

    Perhaps I should have said – cough up one area where you could improve..

    And, I for one would love to hear about biotech startups- how to go about starting one, what its like working for one, how startup is different from other industry positions (other than the obvious risk factors)… what you can do in biotech that you can’t do in big pharma and vice versa. So if you feel like posting here just let me know! Or if you want to post at yackety yack- I’ll link to you!

  7. An area where I could seriously improve would be in figuring out how to best get manuscripts written quickly in a manner that allows grad students to get some experience in writing, but doesn’t require me to rewrite everything. Suggestions welcome!

  8. (1) I have a pretty standardized management style. And I explain to people why I manage the way I do. It involves extensive use of socratic method. I rarely tell people what to do. I lead them through carefully crafted questions to figuring things out for themselves.

    (2) I set an example by working my ass off and being totally engaged in science. What I do on a day-to-day basis is so different from what my trainees do, however, that it is hard to set a more direct example.

    (3) I have heard many, many stories from and about trainees who become miserable and fail because they receive too little guidance. I have never heard a story about a trainee who failed or became miserable because they received too much guidance. (And note that “guidance” is very different from “micromanaging”.)

  9. Great post! So many of the skills you learn as a trainee are different from the ones you need later on. If a research career doesn’t work out for me, I think I will start a business doing leadership training for scientists. I’ll just need to learn it myself first. 🙂

  10. Bugdoc- I am *certain* that you have more experience at this than me, sorry I can’t be of help.

    Anonymoustache- That would be awesome!

    PP- All great suggestions, as usual.

  11. Ecogeofemme-

    Thanks for the comment and I recommend an excellent book- ‘Lab Dynamics’ by Cohen and Cohen…

  12. thanks for admitting the complaining to student A about student B, my old advisor always did that and led to very bad lab dynamics. As a student, I would appreciate honesty, sometimes I feel like my advisor will not say something bacause he doesn’t want to hurt me or be the bad guy, but then he’ll go say sometime to Post-doc A who will come down on me for it.

  13. ScientistMother-

    Never good to trash talk one student to another, or to trash talk anyone for that matter. The only way to settle a conflict or problem is to deal directly with the person in question. 🙂

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