Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Managing Lab Politics

Update on the lab politics...I have gotten some really good advice over the last few days and it has been extremely helpful. I am facing:

A student wants to leave my group what should I do?

I have a student who wants to do work more extensively in an -ology than we typically do. At first I tried to bend his project to encompass more -ology, but as the project was bent further and further, I realized it no longer fit into our lab.

This is where I got some great advice from others. Your lab is an entity. It has a personality and research focus. The projects that you work on need to make sense within that context. It doesn't make sense for me to let a student work in hard-core -ology if that is not what's best for the group. So I went to the student and said look you are being offered a great project, one that is likely to yield at least one high impact paper, if that is not enough for you, maybe you should leave.

Apart from that specific situation, people don't do good work if they don't want to be there. So if a student wants to leave, they should probably have the opportunity to do so. They won't actually be helping much if they stay and the discord can effect other students as well. Students should follow the course that is best for them and if they believe another group would be better, then they should join it.

I think many students when threatening to leave actually want the adviser to yield in some argument or to recognize the students worth and beg them to stay. That really doesn't help anyone. If you are making a choice because you believe it is the best choice for your group and that particular student, it doesn't make sense to use leaving as a wedge to alter that decision.

Now in this particular case, the student in question has not made up his mind. He was in the lab at an ungodly hour yesterday morning, which is a good sign. I hope that this indicates renewed commitment. Regardless, I have recognized that he needs to work on projects that will best help our group, and if he doesn't like the project that he has been assigned (and agreed to work on over a year ago, no less) then he really *should* look for other options.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Lab Politics

Good news, bad news. The good news is that my lab is finally large and established enough to have lab politics. Bad news is that we have lab politics.

I realize that this is a problem everywhere and just gets worse with the size of the group, but this is my first foray into problems of this type. The problem initiated when one of my students who should have been leaving was unable to get a job because of the poor economy. This forced senior student to have to work with junior student, who was designated to take over the project, for longer than I would like. There seems to be lack of communication about just who is working on what and when, and despite my seemingly clear directions, this is ongoing. I have now taken to weekly meetings with each of them to try and sort out problems before they fester.

Junior student has trouble understanding the "big picture" of the research and also why the project is innovative and how it connects to other work. Jr. Student needs constant reassurance that this work is meaningful and will help career goals. Meanwhile, Sr. student is eager for results and publications, presumably to get a job. Sr. student doesn't always share details of the experiments being conducted until the are optimized. Thus, jr. student loses learning opportunities and wastes time waiting for "optimization." I am now trying to divide tasks out so that each can work independently, but their research is still interconnected, so there is still the possibility of one person waiting on the other for data, materials, etc.

The good news is that this project is really, really exciting, and will probably generate a couple high impact papers. So, if I can just get my students to play together in the sand box...

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