Run Your Lab Like a Startup

Oct 02 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

Peter Thiel who started PayPal has a book out called Zero to One. Wired excerpted a bit called "You Should Run Your Start-Up Like A Cult". There were parts of the article that struck me as being relevant to running a lab. Let go of the word "cult" for a minute, and listen to some of the specifics he offers.

One of the things he says is "Why work with a group of people who don't even like each other?". Or more to the point, why would a young trainee come to work with you if your lab is full of barely concealed contempt and hostility? I actually don't care if people in my lab are good friends, but respect and support is critical. What I have discovered is that when people in the lab *are* friends, then things go much more smoothly. This doesn't happen by itself.

But how to make it so? This can be a function of PI personality. It helps if you genuinely like people. But there are also things that are more general. You can set a culture in your lab. And you see the people in your lab as people. They have their own dreams, goals, and most of all life. Don't assume anyone wants what you want. No one has to, to be a good member of a lab. Talk to the people in your lab, find out what they do want. Listen to them and hear what they say.

When I was doing the final negotiation for my new job at not-quite-MRU, my soon to be chair said to me "we take service fairly seriously here. But I've found that it works best when people do something they want to do. What would you like to do?". In my upteen-gazillion years in academics, no one had ever asked that before. I talked with him about mentoring young faculty, particularly women and URMs. I talked about helping people get funded. And low and behold, I'm chair of the Promo & Tenure committee, and running workshops on grantsmanship. And I'm not doing the things that make me cringe  or stay in bed too long in the morning (medical school admissions, for example).

When I was interviewing for a new tech here, I asked each "what do you want to do?" and they all said "whatever the job is". It took a bit of insisting to find out who likes animals (cause there is a lot of animal work in my lab), and who is scared of numbers (and there are a lot of numbers in my lab). I now work with possibly the most incredible tech in the world. And no, you can't have her.

There is a flip side to this in the interviewing process. My new MRU has summer fellowships for med students between year 1 and year 2. I saw colleagues who did 45 min interviews with five or six of them. I didn't have the time for that, and just took one who had pestered me from the day I arrived and was recommended by acolleague who had had her in a class. I asked her if she had friends, and two more turned up. I think because the tech is incredible, the postdoc marvelous, etc, that the three of them (basically selected at random) picked up on the culture/atmosphere, and fit in well. This past summer was a very happy place in my lab. And unbelieveably productive. We are writing many abstracts for the small speciality meeting. Everybody wants to go. Together.

Hiring like everything else is a matter of knowing where to stop on the assymptotic curve.

There was more in the article, and it will have to wait for another day.

One response so far

  • Genomic Repairman says:

    As I'm looking for postdocs right now I'm definitely checking to see what kind of dynamic is going on in the lab between all the members. Ornery lab manage that drags their feet in ordering or a quiet church-like atmosphere where no one talks with each other let alone knows what they are doing, bad sign. Trainees chatting about science technicians during centrifuge spins and looking over data, good sign.

    My grad lab had a great culture and it allowed us to do really good work and now I need to find that again in a postdoc lab.

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