Creating a lab culture

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?

17 thoughts on “Creating a lab culture

  1. Something that I find important is to help develop an online presence for my RAs early. That way if someone searches their name, science research stuff comes to the top rather than their Facebook or twitter or what have you. It’s definitely something no one else is doing (or caring about) around here, but it’s very important, especially as the research culture becomes more entwined with outreach and communication.

    I do like just about all the things you listed! We did that in many labs I had before. My current lab has weekly meetings and a heavy UG RA focus, so the culture here is really about UG support. What’s nice is that two of the graduating UG RAs are applying for this grad program as well, so retention of potential grads or promotion of prospective grads to programs we are familiar with is something we focus on here.

    • – agree that online info needs to be done early, and updated regularly. Nothing worse than trying to find out something recent about what someone has written, only to find their info is 3 yrs old and what you are seeking is not there.
      – yearly retreats are a great idea, but sometimes difficult to schedule when your staff have families and competing interests. I suggest you work out a convenient time of the year at one of your regular weekly meetings, and make a date very early and make a reservation somewhere and then everyone can put it in their calendar and it takes priority. (I also suggest that you find a quiet time of year if you can, not near exam time or the holiday period ….. difficult to do…. the venue might be cheaper, too, at a not-so-popular time).

  2. That is a great idea! I have taken an active role in managing my online presence, which I think has been helpful over the years. This is definitely something I can, and should, encourage my advisees to do!

  3. Our tradition on birthdays was to mess with each others desks the night before. Wrapped one entirely in gift wrap, another bay was filled with balloons, a third with crepe streamers. Very fun, the whole lab worked together on it, made person feel appreciated.

    • Fun! We always just brought in cake or pie. My current grad student sneaked out of a celebration this year because he didn’t tell anyone when his birthday was, and I didn’t ask until it was too late.

    • make sure everyone is on board with what they think is fun. I would have hated that and retreated from the rest of the lab culture as a result.

  4. For celebrations of the academic sort (orals passed, papers accepted, grants received) we pop a bottle of bubbly, aiming the cork at the ceiling. The person being celebrated then writes something on their mark on the ceiling. It’s all completely against the rules, but creates a fun dented and marked up record of all the good things.

    I like the idea of student and PI rights and responsibilities. Would love to see that when you’ve generated it. I currently have students who have not prioritized our departmental seminar series in their schedules for this semester, and that’s a responsibility I’m realizing I need to spell out for them: Thou shalt attend seminar.

    • I like that idea a lot. For my Master’s, my advisor gave me the cork(s), with the date written on them. I still have them- they’ve moved with me back and forth across the country🙂 I should institute this for my students!

      One thing I want to be sensitive to is allowing students who don’t drink to participate fully in all ceremonies. I *think* something like Martinelli’s cider comes with a cork, but a lot of the non-alcoholic bubbly stuff doesn’t.

  5. Great post! When I was in graduate school there was always a lot of discussion about the different lab ‘cultures’ that were in place with different PIs. I always wished that my (mostly male) lab had more of a supportive, fun culture (with lab activities, celebrations, etc) – but at the same time a guy I knew in lab of mostly women just wanted to be left alone to do his work🙂

    Right now I’m thinking about how the other lab cultures in a department (or lack of them) can interfere with what I would develop in a vacuum. None of the labs here have any sort of ‘culture’ – probably since most of the students at both the graduate and undergraduate level have outside jobs and consider this just a ‘working’ place – and I’ve been met with confused stares when I suggest more consistent lab or department activities!

  6. I think another part of having a good lab culture can be taking students from other labs under your wing and including them in your family. I often spend time socially and professionally with the other labs and really benefit from getting to seeing the differences and similarities

  7. Thanks so much for this post! I had a really great lab culture that I very much want to transplant over to my new lab. I love some of these ideas — especially the ‘rights and responsibilities’ and lab retreats. I hope you share your R&R document when you draft it!

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