Increasing the population size…

Last night when I was putting littleA to bed we had the following conversation:

LittleA: Mommy, all of my friends are big sisters.
Me: Oh?
LittleA: Could you have another baby so I could be a big sister?

Yikes. Hey I already said no to the puppy- I love you kid, but a baby sister is out of the question.

But that’s actually isn’t the population I was thinking about for this post. I was actually thinking about the population of my lab, and that population IS increasing. See, my challenge right now that I’m not hotly grant writing in every free moment is to shift gears a bit. The lab population increase comes with a whole new set of challenges that I’m managing.

First, I have had to quickly grow the population of the lab to do the projects we are funded for. Making this happen is a bit tricky because different types of personnel have different challenges for recruitment, and take different levels of training. I chose to recruit postdocs and experienced technicians first. These guys require little training (at least in theory), and can hit the ground running. Speed to data is key for me. Graduate students take longer to recruit and take A LOT more training, and so there is a longer time for them to ramp up to speed. I have several doctoral students in my group already, and both of them are sort of in the mid-stages of their schooling- so they are already up and running. More students may yet come, but just not as the first priority.

I’ve been working hard at this, and the population of the lab has just about doubled in the last two months. This brings some challenges. First, we have the challenge of fitting twice the people in the same amount of space. We will manage with this, but we have actually managed to commandeer a little bit of extra space temporarily- this helps A LOT. More lab space is being sought on our behalf, for which we are deeply grateful. Second, we have the challenge of having enough support staff- by this I mean the very important people that keep the lab running, aka student workers. This hasn’t been too difficult, but having continuity and getting them trained quickly to be totally RELIABLE isn’t as easy as you would think.

Third, we have the challenge of the changing personality of the group. Having a whole bunch of new people, and several established people- it is important to me to make sure I set a good tone for everyone to help/teach everyone else, and that I make expectation that we treat each other professionally and with courtesy very, very clear. So far so good one this one, we’ve had only one slight hiccup- but I think it is really too early to tell how the personalities will mesh with each other. I totally expect to manage this actively.

Fourth, I have the challenge of a hugely increased administrative/accounting/and just plain paperwork burden. This could seriously suck up all of my time if I let it. I have >3 AUPs, and just collecting signatures and keeping the personnel lists current on those things is a time sucking exercise. I’m not covering all of the biosafety and other training that I am responsible for…. For all the newbies. I am managing this by delegating some of these responsibilities to the very important technician who runs things. As time goes on and she becomes more and more familiar with things, she can take on some of the onerous paperwork that I get to do for every compliance issue under the sun. Halleluja.

Finally, and most importantly- managing all the projects we have going. Too early to tell whether I’m doing a good job at this. For now, I give lab meeting like everyone else- but for me this happens every couple of months. In these lab meetings I go up to the board and we list out all the projects we have going, what experiments (both specific and general directions) need to come next, and who is doing what. I think it is important that everyone has an idea what is coming down the pike and when, especially because we have to work together on some of our experiments that require lots of hands. Plus, we just need to keep ourselves on track individually AND as a group on everything going on in the lab. I expect that as time goes on, postdocs in charge of particular projects will start participating more and more in this particular little briefing. In addition to this I am in the lab every day of the week, and at least once per week I talk to everyone in depth about their progress for that particular week, and what they expect to have done the following week- with deadlines wherever possible. I think that sometimes for postdocs and students grant renewal time seems like it is somewhere off in the distant fog of the future. I want to swiftly dispel that impression- because grant renewal is always closer than we think it is, and we need to publish, publish and publish some more… if we expect the federal government to give us some more $$.

Anyway, I’m sure that there are a whole lot more challenges that we will deal with as they come along- and I invite any and all of you that have grown your labs and had to manage this transition to enlighten me on what worked for you, what didn’t work for you….….

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6 thoughts on “Increasing the population size…

  1. I am so impressed with your clarity and thoughtfulness on expanding your team. Every trainee/employee should have a mentor/boss with such vision.

    So far so good one this one, we’ve had only one slight hiccup- but I think it is really too early to tell how the personalities will mesh with each other. I totally expect to manage this actively.

    May I recommend the No Asshole Rule?

    I am managing this by delegating some of these responsibilities to the very important technician who runs things.

    Sounds like you have your super-tech on the right track!

  2. I advise you to spend the weekend creating a new ranking structure in the laboratory. Something along the lines of the following:

    1) El Senora Presidente
    2) Chief of Staff
    3) Quartermaster*
    4) Non-commissioned scientific officers
    5) Defensive linemen
    6) Assholes

    * the lab can’t run effectively if there isn’t somebody keeping tabs on whose turn it is to bring the doughnuts for the weekly meetings.

  3. DSKS- FUNNY. Only you didn’t get the memo on #6- No assholes allowed. Maybe that should have been in caps.

    Microfool- Have you read that book? I haven’t but now I’m going to!!

  4. I’ve read it, and I also follow Bob Sutton’s blog at http://bobsutton.typepad.com/ .

    I recommend the book, which focuses on working for, with, and as assholes. Basically, he says we all act as assholes sometimes, and we have to realize when we’re doing it, so we can stop, apologize, and prevent the inevitable long-term demotivating effects of assholery.

    The blog is also useful, and discusses a broader set of motivation, compensation, management, and leadership issues. I’m not sure I agree with all of it, but it definitely is food for thought, and is usually somewhat evidence-based.

  5. Unless you set up some sort of hierarchy–with post-docs/senior grad students directly supervising/mentoring technical support people, rotating students, undergrads, and junior grad students–you’re gonna end up fucked. This is because there is absolutely no way for a PI to directly supervise/mentor more than about six or seven people.

  6. …and having that sort of hierachy offers career development opportunities for the more senior people, because they let them develop and demonstrate (and let you write rec letters showing that they developed) some of the ‘soft’ people skills and management skills they’ll need as faculty, industrial scientists, science journalists, programme officers, whatever they want to be when they leave your lab.

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