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 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...


At 10:33 PM , Blogger EcoGeoFemme said...

Eww, that sounds messy. Good luck.

At 10:03 AM , Blogger ScienceWoman said...

I'd be curious what you've found to be the best strategy for managing and mentoring grad students. I have three or four incoming MS students in the fall (insane, I know) and I'll have two continuing students. Plus, maybe an undergrad. Last semester I met with people individually on a weekly basis, but I'm thinking that this may be too many people to manage that way. Help!

At 9:39 AM , Blogger Cathy said...

In my first postdoc, which was my favorite lab, we had weekly lab meetings. Everyone got together at 10 am in a small conference room with a table that had room for all, a projector and a white board. Each student presented what they had been doing during the week: the good, the bad and the ugly. We enjoyed and praised the good, critically and constructively discussed and made suggestions about how to improve the bad and the ugly. Also, you had to explain why you were doing what you were doing. You had to be clear. There were two projects (one fly and one yeast) in the lab, so when the group got a bit bigger, the fly people presented one week and the yeast people the next week.

I loved the whole process. It gave everyone an update on what people were doing, gave us an opportunity to practice our presentation and discussion skills and forced us to think about what might be going wrong and to look at the big picture.

Other labs tried other methods, but this worked the best for me. The reason it worked, I think, is that the PI didn't let anybody get away with glossing over problems or results that were unclear. He was very concerned with getting at the true meaning of the results. Great PI. Great lab.


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