How many of you have ever heard the title of this post said in your department? Have any of you ever thought it? In the last year, I read an article that changed my lab’s group meeting for the better, to the point where now we all look forward to group meeting, something I had never done before.
I’ll also reveal something I’ve been ashamed about as a PI: my lab didn’t hold regular group meetings until my fourth year as a PI. For a while, I was my only lab member. And then, when I had one or two full-time lab members, I just met with them individually. In my third and fourth year, combined with undergrads and a postdoc and a full-time master’s-level researcher, we had weekly journal clubs, but I had to cancel these often due to travel and the undergraduates had a hard time leading us through discussions.
But then my lab hit a nice size – three postdocs and two graduate students, along with multiple senior thesis students – and I knew we had to have a regular group meeting. The first semester of my fourth year we tried some different things: meeting once a week and doing a journal club, rapid-fire sessions where everyone presented for 10 minutes, sessions where two people gave in-depth talks on research. Nothing inspired much discussion. I gave a lot of feedback but it was hard to get the group engaged, and in journal club it wasn’t clear everyone had done the preparatory reading.
A colleague at another university sent me this wonderful article “Regrouping the Group Meeting” by Professor Jeffrey Grossman in the Chronicle of Higher Education. A lot of what I say mirrors what the Grossman lab found, but one idea particularly stuck out to me: we had to decide as a group what type of lab meeting would work best for us.
I’ve posted previously about switching to two group meetings a week, but even this plan didn’t gel until we discussed the Grossman article. Here’s what came out of that fun meeting – where I just asked all my lab members, regardless of rank, what they want to get of out lab meetings and which lab meeting style they enjoy:
- My lab likes having a journal club, but wants it to have a theme. This was particularly voiced by the postdocs and the undergraduates. My postdocs are often switching fields, from something quite quantitative to interdisciplinary work in mathematical biology; similarly, the undergrads are trying to build a foundation in our field, so perhaps it’s not surprising that these two “constituencies” would have this desire, but it was neat to see them align in the discussion. So we came up with a plan: each semester, we have a theme for our journal club, and everyone presents at least twice over the semester. This semester we added the stipulation that presentations should be chalk talks (no slides). Because of the mathematical underpinnings of our work, this helps us walk through theory, and it has given lab members lots of experience presenting in a teaching style to the group, which has been great.
- Members also liked rapid-fire sessions, where everyone presented for 5-10 minutes. They liked being held accountable for their to-do list for the week, and also noted that when I am in and out of town this is the only way they can talk about what’s happening in their work. Now we have our second meeting as our “sync-up”, where everyone presents. We decided these short presentations should start with background slides describing the general problem the project focuses on, and then have a slide that represents the obstacle the lab member is working through. This slide gives a chance for us all to brainstorm about what the lab member can try to push through the obstacle, and those discussions have become a highlight of the week. Another exciting feature of the sync-up meeting: it’s a great way to get new undergraduates in the lab. When undergraduates interested in research contact me, I invite them to attend this meeting, and then have a one-on-one meeting with them. I basically tell them to come to at least the sync-up meeting for a month or two, and then talk to me if a particular project piques their interest. This has been a great way to develop summer research projects and thesis projects, and the short nature of the presentations helps lab members develop the ability to quickly describe their question of interest.
- In addition to these two group meetings, I do hold one-on-one meetings with every lab member, including undergrads. I’ve finally resigned myself to the fact that my job is to hire, manage, and get money, and I can only do very little research. At first this made me sad, but seeing everyone’s progress through our group meetings has made me excited about this new career stage.
- Lab socializing is important too. I have always had the lab over in the summer for dinner and after Christmas, but now we have tried to up our socializing to at least once a semester plus one time in the summer. We have a holiday party, did a museum trip, and sometimes I invite small groups over for dinner (e.g., just grad students or just postdocs and their partners). This has been a great way to feel more like a family.
- Last but not least: we started off the fall with a lab retreat in a cabin in the woods. This was wonderful, and my startup funds made it possible. We went away for three nights together and were back in town by late afternoon on the last day. Each of us gave three talks: something on research from the past, something on research we’d like to think about in the future, and a “special topic” talk on something we have expertise in that others don’t: these ranged from talks about travel, to learning words in different languages, to talking about software and time management. The lab cooked all meals but one together, which built a lot of esprit de corps (and saved money). And we did talks in the morning and after dinner but had the middle of the day free to hike, swim, just wander about, cook and nap. I’m not sure if I’ll do this every year, but I think at least every other year will be nice, especially when new graduate students or postdocs arrive.
What has worked for you with group meetings? What hasn’t worked?