I need to fire a lab member; this has kept me up many nights for the past six months. This individual is a staff member in my group, and hasn’t met expectations since the beginning. Yet it’s taken me a long time to finally conclude that this person just has to go, and this conclusion comes after trying different management tactics (more in-person meetings, fewer in-person meetings, increasing responsibilities/independence, switching projects, delineating weekly goals, increasing specificity of goals). We have had multiple performance reviews and discussed that this individual isn’t meeting expectations; we both go into and come out of these conversations with good intentions and outlined changes we will both make, but then a few weeks later deadlines will be missed. A couple of key opportunities for presenting results and gaining new skills were not followed through by this lab member. We are simply not a good fit as a supervisor/employee pair.
Unfortunately this is not the first member of my lab I’ve had to terminate. I thank my lucky stars that none of these individuals have been graduate students or postdocs. My graduate and postdoctoral trainees have been wonderful lab members, and I have learned quite a bit from each of them scientifically and as a manager.
A huge part of me wonders if and how I might have better managed my unsuccessful management relationships. And that same part of me wonders if my knee-jerk internal monologue — “If I just changed something about my approach, this person would be successful at his/her job” — is something I should just push aside. For lack of a better way to put it, I wonder “Would any of my advisors think twice about firing these employees?”
What do these three cases have in common? Each case had similar small-scale logistical problems that were part of a larger issue: for example, lack of attention to detail; not taking notes during meetings with me (it is so strange to me to have to tell a lab member “You should be writing this down” but I have had to do that multiple times); missing deadlines and giving no explanation as to why, and giving no indication that the deadline wasn’t going to be met; not applying suggestions I made about moving forward with experiments and instead reverting to previous approaches that were known to not work. The larger issue all of these examples reveal was a lack of “productivity”. What I’ve realized in managing a lab for a few years is that unfortunately productivity is hard to measure or define: like Justice Potter Stewart said “I know it when I see it.” For a trainee who is meeting goals and moving work forward, I don’t mind if they keep strange hours or are sometimes late to meetings or need to cancel on me once in a while. When a lab member isn’t meeting goals over multiple weeks/months, something as simple as that lab member seeming distracted during lab meeting can have me seeing red.
Can we measure productivity? I have this idea that this is easier in other industries, but it seems quite hard in academics. Number of publications? Accepted abstracts at meetings? Figures for our one-on-one meetings? When I think about how often I am reviewed by my colleagues (every year nominally, but really every few years) and the expectations my institution has for me (“for promotion to associate professor with tenure, the candidate must develop a national reputation in his/her field”), it’s no wonder that I haven’t a clue how to outline concrete short-term steps a lab member can take to be labeled “productive” or “successful”.
After much thinking, the two characteristics my thriving lab members have are a combination of taking direction and showing creative initiative in their research. I think the skill we learn as graduate students, and hone as postdocs, is the intuition for good research problems and paths forward when hitting research obstacles. I strive to gently guide my students through obstacles so that, over time, they’ll learn their own intuition when faced with research challenges. These thriving lab members take my advice when we meet about new experiments to conduct. And they will sometimes go above and beyond my advice by learning a new skill, trying a new approach, or thinking about our data in a way that I didn’t. Every so often they will come into a meeting and say, “I did the things we talked about, and tried this new thing.” And those meetings are usually exciting ones. Another way to think about this creative initiative is pursuing things that feel strange or unexpected in the data we are analyzing or theory we are developing – like Thomas Kuhn suggests we scientists do more than our textbooks would reflect.
What I haven’t figured out is how to guide someone into a productive mode when they’re struggling. I see gaining this skill as a manager as vital, as my research program is transitioning from projects I drive forward to projects driven by my advisees. I have one colleague who swears by sitting down with the struggling lab member and working through the problem together, as long as it takes. I have tried to do this, but find it a struggle to help the trainee move forward while not simply doing the work for them (i.e., I need to think more about “teaching how to fish” in some of these instances). I have tried partnering lab members up, but my lab is still small, so this can sometimes burden a couple of go-to folks in the lab. My colleagues have these struggles too — we often grasp at straws to explain why a student is floundering, and then focus on little things like number of hours worked in the lab versus at home. Do my interviewing methods need to be improved while hiring? How can I predict based on a short series of interviews the working relationship I will have with someone over months and years of time?
I don’t have an answer to the title of this post; while I think delineating expectations for PIs and trainees is a worthwhile process/noble goal but I’ve found it difficult to really get at the heart of what my expectations are for lab members (except “productivity”, ugh). One piece of solace I have is that my graduate advisor, whom I dearly admire, told me that he still can’t predict a graduate student’s trajectory, even after over 30 years as a graduate advisor. This reminds me that the scientific training that takes place in labs is a living thing that morphs with the people involved, not some rote set of rules on stone tablets that make for a “good” or “bad” lab experience.
Are there ways productivity is measured in your research group? How have you handled trainees who aren’t meeting expectations? If you struggled during your training (we all have, really; graduate school is too long to not have some lags in the research process), how did your advisor handle it? How do you wish your advisor had handled it?