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Don’t rule the lab with an iron fist: tips for effective lab management


This is the latest in our semi-regular (trying to be regular) blog series, with the indomitable Sue Fletcher-Watson. The practical skills of being a good scientist are rarely taught but are vital. This is the subject for our series of blogs, and this time we are turning our attention to managing the lab.

You have your University position, you have research funding of some kind (whoop!), and the lab – you, your students, researchers and technicians – is starting to take shape. Managing the team effectively will make for happy and productive group members. This can turn into a virtuous cycle – lab members who enjoy what they are doing are a joy to manage, and make your life so much easier.

What follows is stuff we have learnt over the past few years. The points are broadly organised into two sections – firstly we discuss issues of organisation and management style, then we move onto the non-science elements of a successful lab.

  1. Balance lab identity with flexibility

It might seem obvious, but a group needs a shared identity that their projects can hang off. This could be a series of over-arching questions, a particular sample of interest, a set of new methods you are advancing, or a core set of principles. A clear group identity helps lab members understand the overall picture, how their science is contributing, and how/where expertise can be shared. When Sue joined the Patrick Wild Centre and was given a branded PhD mug it made her feel one of the team. This kind of thing makes a real difference for new staff and students.

But be careful that your lab identity doesn’t kill off flexibility. It’s important that individual lab members are able to take intellectual ownership of their work, even if they are junior. In Duncan’s lab he focuses cognitive and brain development in childhood. When a potential student approached him with an interest in socio-economic status he was initially very reluctant. He could see it could easily turn into an intractable mush – that literature can be a real mess. But he went with it, and together they put together a project they were both happy with. Turns out, the student was amazing, the project highly successful, and this line of research now forms a main arm of his current research programme. Giving lab members intellectual ownership and being flexible about projects means that you give your students and staff permission to innovate. In science this is the most valuable thing of all, and an essential component of how we make progress.

So have a clear identity and make sure this is explicit, and understood by all members – but don’t sacrifice flexibility.

  1. Balance easy wins and long-term goals

When starting your lab you will have various potential projects. In the early days when the lab is small you need to be strategic. Investing all of your energies (and those of your lab) in a single demanding, high-risk project, which may take several years to come to fruition, is unwise. When Duncan started his lab in Cambridge a very wise mentor told him to balance easy wins and long-term goals – alongside a large project he needed simpler experiments. This advice was invaluable. That big project took Duncan’s embryonic team 18 months to collect the data alone, and another 18 months or so to analyse fully. All the lab members were trying to build their CVs and could not afford an empty patch for 3 years. So along the way they published several standalone experimental papers, which made everyone feel more relaxed and meant they could establish ourselves as a lab.

(In the end that big project came to fruition and generated multiple big papers, so our patience was rewarded!).

Meanwhile, during Sue’s postdoc she designed a novel intervention and then evaluated it in a small randomised controlled trial.  That’s a long time to wait for your big paper. To make matters worse, she took maternity leave twice during the project! It was a tough time, waiting for that research to get out into the world, though writing a few review papers and getting the remainder of her PhD studies into journals helped pass the time!

  1. Don’t rule your lab with an iron fist

We have all heard about those labs where the staff are not so much managed as subjugated (maybe there will be a blog on that, if we are feeling brave enough). Lab members are micromanaged, their outgoing emails vetted and they are subjected to surprise inspections. If you are tempted to run your lab in this way, or if this is your natural management style, our advice: just don’t.  It results in very unhappy lab members, creates needless extra work for you, and is ultimately pointless. If your lab members are not enjoying working within your group then they will not be productive. Running them like a sweatshop will do nothing to improve that.

A better approach is to have a clear role-setting process when each member joins the lab. Explain your role as the PI and their role as the post-doc (or whatever). This role-setting includes outlining expectations – mandatory meetings, duties within the group, initial goals, the schedule for your individual meetings etc. If you feel this has not been respected, then of course, pull them up and gently tell them that you want to change things. But don’t micro-manage your group.

  1. Have regular meetings with minutes

Regular group meetings (we both have them fortnightly) provide a space for sharing experience, best practice, technical expertise, troubleshooting and peer support. They’re also a quick and easy way to get a snapshot of where everyone is up to on their projects. Good lab meetings will save you time, and build a happy team. Make sure you reserve a timeslot and don’t let them run over. If you fall into the habit of having needlessly long lab meetings they can easily become onerous. Keep them to time. When you meet, get members of the lab to take turns writing minutes. Sue’s lab stores these in a shared folder which is also crammed with resources to help lab members work independently – model ethics documents and cover letters, useful logos and campus maps.

Sometimes subgroups within your lab may need to meet without you – let them. This could be a really valuable way of them tackling various problems without you needing to expend any time. Don’t insist on being there for every discussion or meeting.

So far we have focussed on elements of lab organisation, strategy and management style. For the next set of points we turn our attention to the more interpersonal elements of running a successful lab.

  1. Encourage your lab to have a social life

Within Duncan’s lab there is a designated Social Secretary, with the job of orchestrating lab social events (checking availability, garnering opinion of what people would like to do, making bookings etc). Make sure that any social events are not enforced, and remember that alcohol is not an essential component of social occasions! It is important not to make anyone feel excluded. N.B. some social activities like life drawing classes might be an unwise choice (sorry Joe), so try to stick to simple events that allow everyone an opportunity to chat without feeling uncomfortable.

Things to keep in mind: what is your role within these social situations? Remember that you still have to be these people’s boss come Monday morning. Have fun but don’t be unprofessional. No-nos include gossiping about your colleagues or asking intrusive questions about people’s personal lives. While taking to the dancefloor to bust a groove is a big YES.

  1. Be a good mentor and keep an eye on wellbeing

Running a successful lab is also about keeping an eye on the wellbeing of those you manage. It’s important to let them know that you care. Both Sue and Duncan make a point of asking, even though everyone seems pretty happy most of the time. This makes lab members mindful of their own wellbeing and flags the fact that you are a person they can speak to if / when they struggle. If you’re doing an annual review, ask them if they’re happy with their work-life balance. Remind your lab group to take time off – especially PhD students who can fall for the myth that they ought to be working 7-day weeks. It can also be a good idea for lab members to have mentors outside the group. With their mentor they can discuss matters like job opportunities, or difficulties they are having with their PI (i.e. you!). It can also provide a valuable alternate perspective on their work.

There is always a slight tension about how much of your own personal life you expose lab members to. Both Sue and Duncan think it is important to show your lab members that you too are a human being, with your own stresses, frustrations and problems. In our experience, when you choose to be yourself with your lab members, and be honest about how you are doing, you give lab members permission to do likewise. It creates a safe space in which everyone feels that they can be themselves, and this is important in creating a supportive work environment. Don’t overshare, but do be yourself.

So there we have it, our tips on running an effective lab. Be flexible, be a human being, be a good scientist.

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