Ways to Run The Lab

Mar 08 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Some of the best insights about how labs work come from people who are trainees with me. I do my best to encourage a "flat lab", with as little hierarchy as possible. Someone (carpet people, from the part of the university where there are carpets on the floor, as opposed to us linoleum/tile people) recently was shocked that I encourage the medical students to call me by first name in my lab. What the heck. That is  a very little thing. There are much bigger things: like actually listening to these students in lab meeting, when planning and treating their ideas and thoughts with respect or criticizing a particular idea or strategy and not the person who said it. My thesis advisor once told me (something like): I can't believe you brought this piece of trash to me and are wasting my time. That was over 35 years ago, and I still remember it. But he's dead.

One of the insights, directly from trainees that I have seen over the years is how uncomfortable "business operation" labs make them. If they wanted to train with a postdoc instead of a PI they would pick the postdoc, not the particular lab. This is likely a reflection of the people who are attracted to my particular brand of lab-chaos or people who care less about being in a shiny lab or doing "cutting edge science" and more about learning something.

I am a fan of "meta-rules", over-arching guidelines that pre-empt having lots of little rules to think about. For grant writing, the meta-criterion is "make the reviewer your advocate", or more aptly "do not piss off the reviewer".

For running a lab and mentoring, one meta-criterion is treat your people like human beings, the way you would want to be treated. You'll make mistakes, we all do and have and will continue to do. But seeing people as people will go a long way to making things work.

13 responses so far

  • Ola says:

    I've found this familiarity thing is a whole lot easier to pull off with age.

    But for junior faculty, especially if you're real young looking (I started my lab' in my early 30s), encouraging a flat heirarchy can cause some real problems. We're conditioned to associate wisdom with age, so if the dude bro students think you're only a couple years older, they just don't respect your opinions or think you have any wisdom. Things can go rapidly down a slope toward over-familiarity, especially if you as a junior PI have a "young person" lifestyle (unmarried, dating, rented apartment, night life, social media, etc).

    In such cases I sometimes found it necessary to do a bit of reminding... "you should listen to me not because I am older/wiser (really I am), but because I am your mentor and I know more about this than you do". You gots ta keep up appearances and behave like a "real professor".

    As I have gained the physical accoutrements of age, it's become a lot easier to have my opinions just taken for granted as containing wisdom, and with this has come a sense of ease about allowing students more familiarity. When one no longer feels like an imposter, it's easier to let down the guard.

    • potnia theron says:

      This is a very important point, and admittedly one I have not had to think about for a while. No one ever mistakes me for one of the dude-bros.

      But! I have had this issue, and its tough. (aside: I had a friend who started wearing glasses for just this reason. It made her look wiser).

      Its tougher when there are gender or race or even height issues.

      The problems you point out are exactly why, despite their utility, sometimes the meta-rules are difficult to implement.

    • David says:

      My adviser was 31 when I joined the lab. He did the first name thing and flat lab, but no one ever questioned his authority. He didn't act like an authoritarian, but he was always in charge. I wish I knew how he did it. I'm sure it helped that he was married, had a house, didn't party, etc (also maybe the male part factored into it).

      I found it curious that my roommate (a PhD candidate) was a few months older than my adviser, but seemed much younger. Their respective places in life (marriage, house ownership, degree/job status, etc) were so different that physical age didn't capture it.

      • potnia theron says:

        yup. physical age isn't everything. At any age (large children are sometimes considered developmentally delayed by other children, because children use size as a proxy for age).

    • M says:

      I am a young (32) female PI. I run a very "flat" lab (didn't realize this was the term). Always first name basis, and respect for everyone (well, I suppose the undergrads might get picked on a little bit, but it's all in fun, and some are the most respected of all). I joke around with and share a lot with my students... I would say we definitely blur the 'friend' zone... though I do maintain a reasonable amount of professionalism. I don't know if it's because of the institution I'm at (not a top school, and therefore people have less to "prove") or if it's because I'm not insecure, but I've never had a problem with being respected by my students. I treat science like teamwork. My students know a lot more than I do in a lot of areas, especially the technical ones, and I am not afraid to admit this. They know that at the end of the day, I am the one who is bringing in money to support their work, I am the one standing up in front of program managers to defend what we do, I am the one making sure everything gets published, I am the one running project management to ensure we stay on track, and I am the one doling out advice about how to keep afloat in life and grad school. I am not good at everything, and I am not that super-genius professor who has the answer to every question, but I am very good at a lots of things, and I admit when I'm not. I think my students inherently respect my genuine-ness and general competence and enjoy working in my group because of the team-based culture I try to create. I try to not mentor through authority/hierarchy, but rather by getting buy in and having the students realize for themselves that what I'm suggesting is really the right thing to do. And at the end of the day, they tend to listen to my advice for this reason. Actually, when I do get a bad vibe from students (sometimes stemming from disrespect), I usually don't have them join my group in the first place or if they have started, they don't stick around for very long after our trial period.

      • potnia theron says:

        I don't know where, or if, I read "flat lab" somewhere else. It's used in organizational terms.

        As for blurring lines, its fine until it isn't . 90 or 95 % of your folks can be fine with it, and then there is a problem, and its not ok. What's important to remember is that it is working for the 90%.

        And... lots of times you can use self-selection to work for you. Also, having a group, and people joining and leaving, means that there is some lab memory/philosophy that the new folks can see and fit into. That's useful. But it means that starting from scratch (either in the beginning or because, by chance, everyone left), can present different challenges.

    • Luminiferous aether says:

      While this is true, like some of the other commentators, I am a brand new PI in my early 30s and I have a "flat lab" policy which is working out very well. My postdoc is in his late 20s and my tech is a few years older than me. My undergrad student is 21. I give ample freedom to my trainees while also regularly making "suggestions" or guiding their experiments based on my experiences, but present it as an option that they may choose to follow if they agree. I find that this really works well psychologically. That said, I do not hesitate to firmly make decisions (when appropriate/necessary) that affirm who the boss is. It's been a year since I started the lab and we are running smoothly with no personality or interaction issues in the group thus far. I regularly "hang out" with my trainees on coffee breaks or social events and we discuss everything under the sun quite freely.

      I think that personnel management comes naturally to some as I have experienced over the years. I suspect that I might be one of those because either I got very lucky with my people or my approach is working well. As I apply it to a higher N over the years, I will know for sure which one it is.

  • Sam says:

    Yes! Thank you Potnia! I have been getting hammered by a couple colleagues for running my lab like this and this post gives me hope. I feel that a hierarchical lab prevents people from being open about ideas and how things are actually going on the ground. And it's just my style.

  • Jaws says:

    One of the esteemed Potnia's comments struck a nerve with me — her invocation of her thesis advisor. Her thesis advisor was wrong: It's bad leadership to give the conclusion only. An acceptable put-down, if he/she really did think Potnia's contribution was that bad, was "Go read X, Y, and Z, which refute your position, revise it, and give me something better." But that would have required understanding something that military officers do: Your most important job is being prepared now for your mission; your second-most-important job is ensuring that the chain of command below you is prepared to step in and do at least 90% of your mission when (not if) you become a casualty. Apparently, the military-industrial complex had not invaded her thesis advisor's lab...

    • potnia theron says:

      First off, this incident is now more than 30 years ago (yipes, when *Did* I get so old???)
      Second off, my advisor never would have said that his most important job had anything to do with me. Or really any of his students.
      Third off, ... oh well... he's dead anyway.

  • chall says:

    Nice post! I definitely think the "flat hierarchy" or "first name basis with your PI" is one of those things that helps avoid cheating/being scared of admitting mistakes as well. Not only being a good mentoring environment and "getting thoughts, ideas and research together". If you(PI) are feared, or perceived as "not listening", how do you expect your people to come to you for help and guidance - especially if something is going "not as planned"?

    Saying that though, I think there is a time factor in there - maybe more for younger/female/race issues where there is a certain inherit respect for a white dude PI where others might have more of a "younger/less respected" idea. I can only speak for myself, seeing that I'm female and not a PI but in a job where I'm first name with my big boss PI. the lab is first name basis but it's turned out to be a good transition from first few months call them Dr PI, then go to first names. Also, there is that difference when referring to the PI by name, if they do first name of Dr PI.... (this may or may not date me as an older European in a slightly hierarcial place?)

    • Luminiferous aether says:

      "I definitely think the "flat hierarchy" or "first name basis with your PI" is one of those things that helps avoid cheating/being scared of admitting mistakes as well."

      I do find this to be true in my lab. Either it might be the flat lab thing or my trainees just might be less intimidated by me since I am pretty much in their age range. Either way, both my postdoc and tech feel at ease to admit their mistakes (even big or silly ones). To help achieve that, I don't bite their head off or judge them severely (even when I'm actually really pissed off). I do chide them a little to encourage them to be more careful, but that's it. We move on and make progress and I don't have to worry about crappy data because they were afraid to admit mistakes.

  • A Salty Scientist says:

    This is a great post, and Potty and the commenters are making some excellent points about the benefits and challenges for both the "flat hierarchy" and "first name basis with your PI." Every PI has their own vision for the type of lab they want and its culture, shaped by the strengths and weaknesses of their own mentors.

    My perspective is that of a very young looking white dood about half way through the pre-tenure process. My scientific upbringing was in places where the "first name basis with your PI" was the norm. My mentors were trying to raise us trainees into colleagues and collaborators, and the culture was that of a free exchange of ideas. Not everything was perfect, and some people were less than, ahem, diplomatic about *naive* ideas. But in general, the lab environment was fun, engaging, and intellectually stimulating--and exactly the type of lab that I wanted to run.

    So I started my lab with this in mind, as a white dood so young looking that I was on several occasions mistaken as an undergraduate. There was I think an occasional lack of *respect* from some of my trainees early on. This was early when they did not know me very well, and it quickly got better for me by acting more mature than my years. This meant not being a *friend* to my trainees, but a mentor. I developed a codified set of expectations for my trainees and a lab philosophy, and basically avoided any and all behavior that could be construed as "dude-bro."

    I've undoubtedly stepped in it my fair share. But I do see some benefits, most of which have already been mentioned. Here's another one that I would like to add. One thing that I really wanted to cultivate is our lab's reputation for doing careful and thoughtful science. This means that I want my students to challenge my hypotheses and not simply defer to the *boss*. When you are on a first name basis with your mentor, I think it's easier to feel like you are arguing science with a colleague instead of a boss. That is my perspective at least.

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