I think I can now legitimately claim that I have a “lab”: I welcomed my first graduate student this fall, I have an ambitious undergraduate working in my lab, and will soon welcome a postdoc. I have been contacted by several new prospective students, and am thinking about how each of them might fit into the lab. Consequently, I’ve been thinking a lot this semester about the inaugural post by Acclimatrix on what kind of mentor I want to be, and what my own strengths and weaknesses as a mentor are. I have a good idea about what works for my own personal and professional development, but how do I ensure that my students are successful and happy as they progress through their careers? I realize that not all of that is up to me, but I want to at least provide the appropriate conditions for my students to flourish.
Over the years, I’ve been stockpiling ideas about the ways that different labs operate. Some labs have weekly lab meetings where everyone checks in about the work they’ve been doing the past week. Other labs meet only sporadically. Some PIs meet with everyone in weekly individual meetings, others on an as-needed basis. Some PIs are actively working in the lab, others rarely step foot in the lab. My own style is to be moderately hands-on right now. I meet with my grad student weekly and try to work in the lab at least a few days a week. Because we are a small group and my grad student is just starting to delve into the literature, the weekly meetings also function as a lab meeting and the undergraduate will join us when we discuss papers.
But all of the above focuses on ‘personnel management’. A broader question is how to develop a positive lab culture. To some extent, the common core of my lab is already formed because all students have broadly shared research interests. But despite this being true for most groups, some labs are more cohesive than others. I want my lab to be a welcoming place, where we can discuss our science openly, honestly and critically, work well together, and have fun while doing it. So how do I go about creating that? Is it something that can be actively created or does it arise organically?
Right now, my lab is small with a shallow history, and so I view my job as laying a positive foundation from which to grow. I have been involved with many lab activities over the years that have set a good tone for a positive lab culture. For example, my former lab developed a lab mission statement while I was there, which was a good way for everyone in the lab to reflect on the broader intellectual goals of the lab and their role in achieving those goals. For me, I feel this exercise will work better in a few years, once I have more students and more of an intellectual community in the lab. Other PIs meet with students some time in the first year to see what kinds of skills, experiences, and opportunities that students might want to develop over their graduate career; this becomes a sort of ‘contract’ to guide both student and PI. This is a nice idea, but seems too structured for my style. Some PIs develop a list of ‘rights and responsibilities’ for both the PI and the students. Some labs have yearly retreats, seasonal dinners or potlucks, and/or birthday or milestone traditions.
In the ‘growth phase’ of my lab, here are some of the things I am planning on implementing:
- Meet with each student at least once per week, where we discuss short term goals, and occasionally step back to look at long term goals
- Weekly lab meeting focused on reading papers, discussing manuscripts, talks, etc.
- Develop a list of ‘rights and responsibilities’ for both the PI and the students
- Once per semester lab get-togethers at my house or a local restaurant
- Lab meeting celebrations when papers are accepted or proposals funded
- Lab meeting celebrations for birthdays and other milestones (as you can see, I like celebrations!)
- Perhaps a yearly ‘retreat’
I’m interested in making my stockpile of lab ideas grow into a public resource. How do you help facilitate a positive culture in your lab?