Becoming a Manager

While I was a grad student, I spent all of my time inside the details of my Ph.D. research program, focused almost exclusively on what the problem-of-the week was and trying to solve it. During my time as a post doc, I’ve found that not only do I need to continue solving the problem-of-the-week, but I also have to oversee a number of students and help them to solve their own problems-of-the week and provide projects for them that are appropriate to their skill levels that also challenge them intellectually. In essence, I’ve become middle management for our lab.

The group I joined was just getting started when I was hired, so I’ve had the opportunity to grow with my lab. I started by being a secondary adviser role to my PI’s grad students, being present in their project meetings and offering experience where I could. It was a fairly easy position, one that at the time still had me focused on my research not unlike my grad school years. As our project began to take off, we began to bring more undergraduate students into the lab, which is when I began needing to develop new skills.

Our undergraduates joined us, full of energy but greatly lacking in direction and experience. My PI has largely made me responsible for their progress. Blurring my hyper-focus on my problem-of-the-week, I now had to step back and prepare a plan towards a successfully running lab. First, I had to learn how to break down the technical aspects of what we’re trying to do in a way that the students could both understand and, hopefully, excite them about the work. I spend time planning out all of the steps between now and having functioning equipment, and have been working to sort them by skill level and interest of the students. We have hardware, electronics, and software that all needs to get put together, and it’s up to me to figure out which students are going to be both interested and adept at each.

Image of a white woman scientist in a lab coat holding chemistry equipment and explaining some scientific process to a number of diverse young women, also wearing lab coats.

From Wikipedia. Unfortunately, the gender demographics in my own lab are skewed heavily in the other direction.

I love getting my hands dirty in research projects, so one of the more difficult parts has been to step back and let the undergrads do their work. When I’ve laid out a plan before, I’ve tended to dive in and start doing what I can to check items off the list. Everything needs to be done, and I’ve been learning that I need to be more patient with the students’ time schedules, as they have the extra burden of classes and tend to be gone on breaks far more often than those of us who work at the university are.

Additionally, I’ve had to learn that our lab is not right for every student. The first time we brought in a student who was disinterested in the work and fairly quickly left our lab, I was devastated that I was failing in my position. My PI assured me that sometimes students come and go, and that it can be a bit of a rare thing to hold one’s interest in the project over years during a point in their lives when they’re exploring new avenues of what they want to do with their future lives. Still, for every student we’ve lost, it’s driven me harder to figure out ways of maintaining student retention, and of trying to find that balance of independent responsibility and directed oversight that helps the lab grow and helps the students develop.

As I progress further in my career and (fingers crossed!) get a faculty position, I know that my time for being hands-on in the lab is going to diminish, and that giving my students their own responsibilities in my lab is a first step on the way to “lab upper management.” So for now, I’ll be keeping an eye on our students to make sure the details of the lab get taken care of while focusing on more of the higher-level work and lab planning to be done, and leave the soldering to my students.

4 thoughts on “Becoming a Manager

  1. Even when students find “the lab is not right for them”, it is a positive experience – it is something they (and you) have learnt about themselves and will save a lot of heartache for them (and their future supervisors) in the future. So yes, try to engage those with the fire in their eyes, but don’t despair if some don’t follow the same passion as you. They will go and find another passion that suits them better. You could even discuss this feeling with them, to make the parting less sorrowful.

  2. Have you ever had a student/colleague who refused your authority/supervision? I’d like to hear from you on that issue. How have you delt with it, especially if this person didn’t leave the lab and you couldn’t get rid of that person as the PI got along with him/her.

    • That’s a really good question, and one that I have limited experience with, and would encourage anyone else reading to offer their experiences.

      When I first started my post doc position, I did have some difficulties with not being taken seriously by the graduate students mentioned above. In a number of my early interactions with them, they would blow of my suggestions and try to talk over me. Since they were my PI’s students, and they both had passed their qualifiers before I showed up, getting rid of them was in no way an option. Over time our relationship has changed, but I don’t think there’s any one event that led to it. Being present and continuing to point out the flaws in their work, and to help them through difficulties they were facing seemed to help give me some kind of “academic credit” among them. Our PI has also put a lot of trust and responsibility in me, and I think that they picked up on that over the past few years. The lab I’m in also tends to have quite a long period of preparation and short bursts of massive activity (liquid helium’s not cheap, so we tend to prep for months and then work as much as possible when it comes in), and I think the first activity burst went far in changing our relationship, since I was put in charge of organizing it and, by large extension, what their roles were during it.

      So, I guess in short, having my PI put his trust in me and let me take over leadership position, along with being present and demonstrating my abilities on a daily basis seemed to have worked for me. As I said, though, I welcome any other comments and experiences.

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