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.

Friday, September 17, 2010

How big is too big?

One of the things that I am struggling with right now is trying to figure out how big my lab group should be. I really enjoy mentoring my students one on one, and I don't think that I want to have a mega-lab, which would make this impossible. However, I keep getting pulled in new interesting research directions, especially since so much of our stuff is working.When I first started, we were working in two different research directions. Now, I can say that we probably have four. Any one of these would be enough to build a career on, but I have always enjoyed breadth over depth. I originally thought that as areas didn't work we would prune them and I would be left with a manageable amount of projects. Unfortunately, a much larger number of projects have worked than not worked, which leaves me with a vast wealth of projects. And, just when I think okay we aren't going to do X anymore, I will meet five other people who love the way I do X and want to collaborate in just the area that I need help with. Its a little maddening at times. Long story short I have no idea what I want to do with all this. My lab just seems to keep growing. I am generally happy with this, but sometimes we have so much going on that I spend all my time fighting fires and not enough doing essential tasks (writing grants, paper, getting ready for teaching). I just don't know how Mr. Big and Famous types do it.


At 10:29 AM , Blogger Becca said...

On the one hand, we should all have this kind of problem! Need a post-doc? ;-)

On the other hand, I think this really gets to the heart of several aspects of lab management that can be frustrating for people in labs.
It is widely acknowledged among students that Mr. Big and Famous types do not generally spend much time meeting with students, let alone really mentoring them.

From a lowly student's perspective, you pretty much have three choices:
1) grow your own leadership talent- get postdocs who enjoy mentoring your grad students who enjoy mentoring your undergrads, and relinquish some of this aspect of the job (efficiency in mentoring)
2) ruthlessly eliminate good students by assuming it's a sink or swim world; devote significant time only to a minority of your trainees (effectiveness in mentoring- utilized by many Big and Famous types)
3) ruthlessly eliminate good projects just because they aren't the shiniest; devote significant time only to a minority of your projects (effectiveness in research directions- seems painful to implement and you will inevitably adjust your priorities all the time, often based on factors that aren't immediately visible to your trainees, and drive them temporarily nuts a lot.)

Those options are not mutually exclusive (indeed 2) likely entails 3) unless you also have multiple people working on each project, another strategy favored by some Big and Famous types that is generally viewed as Not creating a collaborative and productive lab environment)

At 9:18 PM , Blogger Ewan said...

Yeah, me too. It wasn't a problem I expected to have, but then I was blissfully clueless just how much time lab people + teaching would actually take. So now I have a postdoc (had two, one left for hyper-successful industrial research gig), ~4.2 grad students (3 full, one doing work in my lab but formally in a different lab, one visiting from Brasil for a year or so), and right now only 4 undergrads (all great; previously one superstar has graduated, two have passed through on good terms, three have been canned at various stages). I would like to be able to put people on more projects... but I don't think I can really be good at guiding more than roughly this many.

A senior, top-class postdoc would help, and I have money for one, but am not at a place that's super-desirable; and I really really *need* to get organised about hiring a lab tech mostly for support of the shiny big equipment bits.

I do think that I should have graduated grad students more, rather than taking so many initially; there may come an unavoidable bolus effect. We'll see.

At 7:56 PM , Blogger Candid Engineer said...

My Mr. Big & Famous does it, partially, by hiring a lab manager/coordinator. I don't even know 3/4th's of what she does, but she is absolutely critical for our lab functioning. She puts out all of the lab fires, she handles a lot of the personnel paperwork, and does a lot of the grant paperwork. If you have enough $$ to outsource the non-science, non-mentoring bullshit, then by all means, you should do it.

At 9:21 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

How big are you thinking? The PI I worked for as a post-doc had about 20 people in his group (3-4 post-docs, 12-15 grad students and 1-4 undergrads at any time). He managed to do a good job mentoring everyone. It worked basically that there were meetings each week as groups for people working related projects. That way everyone could help when problem arose. We had a weekly meeting that everyone attended and he had an open door policy for getting individual help. If you had not been in to see him individually for two weeks, he would seek you out. When people were struggling, they met with him individually (weekly) as well.

It seemed to work out well for the most part. My PI was also very good at changing his mentoring style based on the person he was dealing with. Some people needed weekly attention, others (like me) really only wanted to talk to him when I had good news or was really struggling in the lab. I preferred to have the time in the lab than getting ready for meetings.

The mega group that was a few floors above us had about ~40-50 people in it. It was widely known that the lab managers and post-docs ran the labs. THe PI met with those people and sent stuff through them to the rest of the group. Very little mentoring of grad students went on.

At 10:29 PM , Blogger Dr Driving said...

I understand what you bring it very meaningful and useful, thanks.


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