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.
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.