Lab management: Advice for when you start a new lab

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Lab management: Advice for when you start a new lab


By Professor Beatriz Rico, King's College London

After many years of successful science as a PhD student and postdoc, you may feel fully trained and ready to start your lab. The truth is, you are! You have been trained to do good science, you have fresh ideas and are full of energy. However, nobody teaches you how to manage people and how to be a leader in science. After 15 years of working in science, I am continuously learning how to be a good leader. Here are some tips to help if you are starting your own lab.

1. Remember, your people are not you

When you start your lab, you are a very successful postdoc with many years of experience. You know what to do, you can multitask and are very efficient. Usually, the first people you recruit will be PhD students; a good tip is to look back and remember when you were at that stage in your career, and understand that they will need guidance and support. 

2. The right number of people

A common mistake is to believe that more people means more productivity. This is not necessarily the case - grow from small to big. It may be best to start with a couple of students and then recruit a few more people, for example a a postdoc and a technician, once your PhD students are trained. In the first years, it is difficult to manage more than 5 people, as you are busy writing grants and papers, doing administration, possibly teaching and working at the bench on top of managing the people in your lab.

3. Work at the bench

During the first years of your lab, you will need to be at the bench. The typical mistake is to be seated in your office writing grants, reading papers and doing administrative tasks. Instead, it is critical that you are in the lab training people and setting the standard.

4. Teach by example

Over the years, I have learnt that you need to convey motivation and commitment if you expect that back from your team. Science is exciting and no matter what your mood is that day, you need to encourage the people in your lab and show them the beauty of what they do.

5. Embrace different cultures and different people

Different cultures enrich the lab but can also be a source of misunderstandings. You must guide people to understand others’ behaviour. Also, you can learn how to get the best out of everybody. There is nothing more satisfying than watching your people grow in confidence and defend their work with authority in posters, talks and other situations.

6. Listen and communicate

It is important to both listen and communicate with your lab. There can be many misunderstandings in many directions within the lab. You need to talk to the members of your lab and let them know that they can talk to you about anything that’s on their mind, whenever they need to. Be open and approachable, listen to the point of view of others and give them your opinion, advice and feedback too. 

7. Be supportive and coach your people

Science is sometimes hard. You need to be supportive when experiments fail, coach your lab and teach them how to troubleshoot. They are young and you will need to nurture them; they will appreciate and trust on your knowledge.

8. Provide feedback in regular meetings

It is very useful and important to have regular meetings with the individuals in your lab to discuss their workload, the progress of their work, new ideas, concerns they may have and so on. This is independent of being open to scientific discussions at any time, and should be a chance for the individual to discuss anything that is on their mind. Ensure you ask them for feedback on how they think they can improve their performance and how you can improve as a supervisor. Let them know how crucial they are to the lab, tell them what they do well and give constructive feedback on what could be improved.

9. Recognise the difference between time-urgent and important

This is a critical aspect of managing a lab. Unfortunately, I do not often follow what I am about to say, but here is the theory. “Urgent important” tasks should always come first, but sometimes “important non-urgent” tasks need to take priority. For example, starting to outline future grant applications, even though the deadline is months away, is not time-urgent but is fundamental for your lab.

There are excellent courses that you can attend to learn more on how to manage a lab. Often, some institutions have free regular courses to attend and I also strongly recommend EMBO courses in management and leadership if you have access to those.

10. Advice for women in science

I could not finish this post without adding some tips for women who are working in science:

1. If you have a partner, find support from them to develop your career and share the responsibilities you have at home.

2. If you are a parent, it is often natural to feel guilty when you are in the lab and not with your kids and vice versa. Remember if you are happy, your kids will be happy as well. Importantly, focus on where you are at that moment; enjoy your science and enjoy your kids.

3. If you feel you are not being heard, speak up. Do not allow interruptions from others in public discussions or feel that your opinion does not matter or is unimportant. 

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