Great Expectations…

Mad Hatter had a post yesterday about ‘fit’ of personnel hired into the lab on which I made a comment about a habit I have of sitting my employees down on the first day, and laying out a few of my expectations for professional behavior in the lab. A couple of people (CAE and Schlupp) wondered in the comments what I say during this meeting… hence this post…

Why do I do this? Well- I have found over my years as an employee and an employer that you just can’t assume that people who come to work for you (or with you) will behave like professionals, considerate human beings, and adults. I despise lab ‘drama’, and want my employees to know from the first day that they set foot in my lab that I will not tolerate this kind of behavior. Mental energy WASTED on lab drama takes away productive time and effort from actual science, and it is completely unnecessary to let this get started. I am equal opportunity- I do this regardless of whether or not I have just hired a postdoc or I am taking in an undergraduate to work for credit.

Here are, in no particular order, the points that cross my lips:

1. I expect you to work together well with the other members of the lab. Although we each have our own projects, we are a team. There will be times when you will be expected to help with larger experiments requiring multiple personnel. At these times we re-arrange what we are doing and all work together.

2. I expect you to treat each other and me with respect, and I will do the same. This does not mean that you must be best pals and drinking buddies with the remainder of the lab. This DOES mean that between the hours of 8 am and 6 pm (or whatever) we work together and treat each other with courtesy and respect.

3. Speaking of hours– I will generally not pay much attention to these (with the caveat that if you will miss whole days you should let me know where you are and why). I will, however, pay attention to whether or not work is getting done in a reasonable time frame and I will ask you about this if something seems off to me…

4. I expect that you will treat everyone equally, regardless of his or her job description and educational status. The student workers deserve the same courtesy as the postdocs and senior graduate students… I will not tolerate poor treatment of someone you perceive to be below your rank… I don’t want to see this in my group.

5. I expect you to be a good lab citizen– this means that you are considerate, you clean up after yourself, you refill common solutions that you have used, and you DO NOT leave messes that inconvenience others in the lab. This type of behavior from just one habitual offender can aggravate the entire rest of the group.

6. When someone goes to the trouble to teach you something, I expect you to take notes! Very detailed notes…(This is mostly for those with less laboratory experience). Sometimes I even show them the notes I took when I learned how to run an SDS gel as a rotating student … I can’t believe I still have those! I go so far as to give them a separate notebook (just a cheap composition notebook) for writing down the protocols they are learning…

7. I expect you to observe safety regulations in the lab (I lay those out as well, there is a whole separate safety briefing). It is part of my job to ensure the safety of ALL of my employees… and what you do in your work may endanger your safety and that of others in the group and in the building. If you are unsure of a safety procedure and a chemical- you must ASK for help… directly from me if necessary! And by the way- in NO lab that I have previously worked in has there been as direct a discussion about lab safety as I have with my people. We work with some incredibly dangerous chemicals- and other reagents and I would be horrified if someone got hurt.

8. If you need help I expect you to ask for it… – please, please, please- ask for it. There are several very experienced people in the lab (including me!), and we will drop whatever we are doing to make sure that that 30 day trial involving live animals doesn’t go awry on day 29 because you failed to ask for whatever you needed!

9. I expect your laboratory notebook to be orderly, complete and extremely detailed. Laboratory notebooks are the permanent record of your data- and she who writes the papers will have to decipher the details of your work… this is easier if the details are actually written down. Don’t have a bunch of little post it notes for your data…!!! And if you do- make sure they are PERMANENTLY pasted into the notebook..(For more junior people I actually go through the notebooks at the beginning as well).

10. I expect you to attend our weekly lab meetings, and my door is always open for your questions and exciting data! At these meetings we will review all of your data and I want to see all the nitty gritty details. The ugly blots, the actual numbers… etc. I love data and don’t get to make much with my own hands anymore… so show me yours!!! Also, I’m responsible for the integrity of said data… so I will keep a close watch on it.

11. And lastly… The radio. I don’t mind the radio on in the lab- but I kind of feel about the radio like I feel about smoking (just in general). If it’s bothering ONE person in the group- then I want the radio turned off. The bothered person should feel completely uninhibited about asking for the radio to be switched off (or just switching it off).

12. I lied… and lastly- Abel Pharmboy brought to my attention a comment I made over at his place of blog– and suggested I add it back here… so here goes slightly edited: I expect you value every person that makes this lab run (and indeed the institution!)- from the most gifted postdoc, to the hardworking people who run the building.. to the administrative staff that keep finances in order… all the way to the person who mops the floor. Learn their names of those more invisible (simply because you aren’t their supervisor), say good morning to them every day and make sure they know you value their help… I do this, and I expect you to as well!

I know that there are other things I say as well.. I just can’t think of them at this moment…. Maybe you have some suggestions?!


21 thoughts on “Great Expectations…

  1. “she who writes the papers will have to decipher the details of your work”

    Is this a hypothetical “she” or do you actually write all the papers that come out of your lab? And how have you dealt with people who have not met these expectations?

  2. Oh, those are great! Perhaps the only thing I could think to add would be sort of the contrapositive to 6: If you are in charge of teaching something to a more junior person, then their success or failure will reflect on you! You should do your utmost to make sure that they understand what you are saying, rather than just shoving a protocol in their face and turning back to your own work….

    I think it’s good you make these things explicit. As you say, it doesn’t seem as though grown-ups should have to be told any of these things, but it’s better to say something redundant than to assume it’s understood.

  3. This is a great list. I’ve fallen foul of people who believed they ‘out-ranked’ me, particularly in the last lab. It was very unpleasant for me, and an ego trip for them I like that you do this.

  4. All of your points are important, drdrA. Explicit is good!

    I also emphasize that I expect EVERYONE who wants to join the lab to come because they are excited about science, and are motivated to think about, read about and to do experiments. Each scientist, no matter what their level or experience, has to bring something to the table, i.e., enthuasiasm, new ideas, etc. Thus, if I get the sense later on that anyone, from undergrad to postdoc, is waiting around for someone else to do the thinking or motivating for them, I remind them about why they told me they wanted to be here.

  5. Wow, you people are fast.

    Mad Hatter- It’s a hypothetical she… but right now I have nearly all women working for me- so it could be any of us.

    Dr. J.- Yes- you would think by the time that you hit a lab, at least a few of the more obvious things here would be worked out. In my experience you just can’t take that for granted. But, since the buck stops with me- I think it is best to let everyone know up front what I expect.

    Propter Doc- Very few things make me more upset than this. I absolutely can’t stand it, there is no reason for this kind of behavior that I can see- other than to TRY to make someone feel small.

    Hi Bugdoc- Once again- you are so right. In fact, I cover this when I interview them and I don’t let them into the lab if I don’t see a level of enthusiasm about the project that I think is good. I can teach through a lot- I can teach troubleshooting, and scientific thought, and designing logical experiments and positive and negative controls… etc. etc. etc.

    But one thing I can’t teach is enthusiasm for the project and the desire to know the answer and always reach for the next question. For myself, this has always been the motivating factor to coming into the lab/my office each day.

  6. Good for you! I think most people are most comfortable when they know exactly where they stand and what’s expected.

    As I said on Mad Hatter’s original post, I’ve always initiated a similar conversation with a new boss on my first day, but with a slightly different focus. I’d always ask about how often they like to meet, whether they like to see every new result or a summary every week or month, how they like lab books to be organised etc. Every boss has always been surprised by this, but I think it’s worked out well!

  7. Re: hours and the beginning grad student who is taking classes: I expect that you spend the majority of your non-class weekly hours in the lab; studying, reading lab literature, asking questions, getting to know labmates, observing experiments if not performing them.

    Re: specific hours: I do not necessarily expect 8-6, but you should plan to have some of your hours overlap with normal workday hours so as to facilitate interaction with PI and other lab members. (i.e., working midnight-6am not acceptable).

    Re: asking questions and lab citizen: Report mistakes or errors (breaking things; losing sample down the drain) right away! Especially with expensive equipment. Everybody makes mistakes; you will not be penalized for honest errors. Covering up errors is a bad thing. Pointing out equipment that costs more than employee’s entire yearly stipend.

    re: Lab safety: your health and wellbeing is more important than any experiment.

  8. vwxynot?-

    Why thank you. This is working well thus far. I like your way of being pro-active from the other side as well!

    Neurowoman- You are tough! Yes, I expect students to spend non-class hours in the lab… on the activities you suggest. I haven’t yet phrased it to them this way though- I’ll have to take this suggestion!

    Also- I haven’t yet had a problem with an employee not overlapping with me at all- so this isn’t in my experience yet. Most of my employees are moms with kids- so working these kinds of hours midnight to 6 am, is pretty much out of the question!

    And finally- VERY VERY important that honest errors are not penalized!!

  9. Is it really necessary to point out how expensive things are? In my experience, intimidating people makes them fuck up more, not less.

  10. Welcome Dr. Shellie and Lab Lemming- and thanks for the compliment! I am learning how to do some of this PI business by trial and error- hopefully some of this will be useful to others.

    And, Lab Lemming- no need to intimidate- actually though- I do mention that centrifuges are very dangerous if not used correctly…and that they are expensive (this usually occurs when we are walking through the lab). I mostly worry about this from a DANGER point of view.

    As for talking about cost- I was raised in labs where money spent on reagents/supplies/antibodies etc. was no object, so I actually didn’t know what things cost. This is not a good thing, since many labs these days aren’t loaded with cash- so teaching people a healthy respect for the budget isn’t a bad idea.

  11. How do y’all feel about iPod’s instead of the radio? I find that they discourage the interpersonal interaction that labs used to have but, then again, there are no Lab Radio Wars.

    And while you’re onto showing respect for all regardless of rank, thanks so much for commenting on my post about all lab and facilities support people. Your own comment might make a good #12 (or #11):

    It is true- value every person that makes your lab run (and indeed the institution!)- from the most gifted postdoc, to the hardworking people who run the building.. to the administrative staff that keep finances in order… all the way to the person who mops the floor. Learn their names of those more invisible (simply because you aren’t their supervisor), say good morning to them every day and make sure they know you value their help…

  12. Hi Abel-

    Hey- it was my pleasure (the comment, I mean)… thanks for stopping by here too!!

    I don’t mind ipods- in fact, sometimes when I am doing something high-throughput in the lab and want to block out background talking- I listen to mine. I agree though, that continuous listening to ipods does stunt interpersonal and scientific interaction. This is not something I have had a problem with yet, because it doesn’t seem like my ‘people’ have a habit of ipod listening…

    I’ll add my comment on your post as #12… for sure!

    Hope all is well with you!

  13. Pingback: An important point worth noting « in the world of Science

  14. If your lab has a lot of turbopumps- especially old or sick ones- then headphones are a sanity saver if you’ll be in there for a while. Although it is always good to point out that sliding buds in under bulky safety earmuffs is a lot healthier than cranking up the volume in an attempt to drown out the scream.

  15. What I am really missing in this list is the something like this: ” it’s of no need to try impress the PI with what you know or can do; From now on I believe in you as a researcher with original ideas and your own perspective and I would be glad if you share your ideas, data, plans for experiments…” I hate the competitive-driven ass-kissing behavior, so if you got some idea or protocol from someone else in the lab, I think it should not be allowed that you try to make it look like it was all your idea or it is your data when you talk about with other labmembers or at symposia. This implies that you always mention your colleague from which you got you insigths. To my experience, many people (especially new grad students) always talk in the “I-form” where instead it should be the “he or we-form”. I always try to keep these things in mind when I talk, especially with my supervisor. I think people who ignore that are arrogant and have no respect towards their colleagues and that it creates a bad atmosphere. This is probably especially the case in labs where people are not out-front to each other or where there is a general atmosphere of bad or no communication.

  16. Welcome Mr. Procrastination… I like your screen-name..

    Yes, it is very very irritating when there are people in a group who don’t give credit where credit is due. And when they move on to their next job, and continue to do this- as though your contribution never existed- …. well, I’ve been at the receiving end of this myself and just don’t like it.

    I haven’t yet worked this one into my little spiel- but there is always room for improvement.

  17. I really like the idea of addressing these issues and defining what is acceptable early on. I have seen many many labs where things like these only get addressed after the problem has manifested itself.

  18. Pinus-

    I’ve seen them never be addressed- problem ignored,… only to fester and this is bad, bad news…

  19. I ran the Peninsula Marathon yesterday; 26 years ago I ran it and it was my first ever marathon. I am pretty sure that my times were nearly the same.Does anyone have the race results for the 1985 Peninsula Marathon please if I give you my name and race number could you tell me what my time was in 1985 please?Many ThanksCheersJon

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