“Group meeting is the highlight of my week.”

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?

9 thoughts on ““Group meeting is the highlight of my week.”

  1. Pingback: On Group Meetings | Tea 'N' Mango Juice

  2. Speaking as a postdoc, I really hate having more than one meeting per week. I came from a decent-sized lab in the US where I did my PhD, and we had one weekly meeting that served as journal club, discussing a current important paper, or discussing one person’s research issues. We did not have planned weekly meetings with our PI or anything else other than the once-weekly meetings (but our PI was literally always available on an as-needed basis). I really liked that. As an undergrad, I was part of several labs that never had meetings, and that wasn’t the best either (especially for an undergrad trying to get to know the group). Now I’m in a large European group as a postdoc that has a weekly research update meeting (where one person presents on a planned or finished project), a weekly logistical group meeting, a weekly meeting just for the people working on one particular topic, and weekly individual meetings with the PI, as well as twice per year “retreats” (where we don’t have as much free time as you describe in yours). Everyone hates it, but the PI is the type who doesn’t care what other people think about how best to use their time. I think you (and probably my PI) have the best of intentions, but make sure that all of these meetings (again you aren’t having as many as my lab) don’t interfere with people’s productivity. Especially the individual meetings. Not everyone may need a meeting with you once per week, and I personally think it is best to let people choose whether that’s something they like or if they’d rather set up meetings as-needed.

    I’m curious what others’ thoughts and experiences are, too, since I’ve experienced I think the entire gamut of possible group meeting schedules in my academic career.

    • You have had a wide range of experiences with group meetings! The one-on-one meetings were actually asked for by each lab member; some of them are quite short, but my impulse was not to have them because my graduate lab didn’t have them. I guess this underscores what I think is the best approach: let the lab members (not the PI) drive the group meeting and individual meeting schedule. I do think it’s hard to have one-on-ones with some folks and not others, so since the majority of my group really wanted one on ones I scheduled them and then always tell people that it’s fine if they are short. I prefer they don’t cancel, just so we can touch base (even if it’s for a few minutes).

  3. Oh yeah, we are also required to go to the weekly institute-level seminar talk, no matter what the topic or reputation of the speaker, and it runs into the late evening. DO NOT require your people to attend these things unless it is a particularly relevant topic or a person who’s a great speaker. What a waste of time.

  4. Nice post. I have a weekly group meeting, which alternates between paper discussions and data presentations, based on the wishes of who is presenting. And I also meet once per week individually with each lab member.

    I was thinking more about “GermanPostdoc’s” points above, and found that after some reflection, I disagree with many of them. I agree that there can be meeting overkill. But, I’ve also found that most of the big issues I’ve seen in academia come down, in one form or another, to a lack of communication. So I like hashb8ng’s approach of scheduling the 1-on-1’s simply to allow time to check in, even if it’s just a short meeting. And I’ve found that the more we meet as a group (to a point), the more we understand different projects within the lab and are able to provide more intelligent feedback for other people’s work, which ultimately helps improve everyone’s scholarship.

    Attendance at the weekly seminars is something I also encourage. I attend three seminars per week, mainly because there are a lot of interdisciplinary groups that I am involved in, each with their own seminar. Sometimes, yes, the talks are not relevant. But I’ve actually found that I haven’t been able to predict which talks I enjoy based on “topic or reputation of the speaker”. And, by going every week regardless, I help build up community and touch base with other attendees in ways that I wouldn’t otherwise. I don’t require my students to go to each one, but I do ask that they regularly attend the series most closely related to their research, regardless of the specific topic in any given week.

    • I do agree that having more opportunities for communication is key in an academic environment; one twist I try to give compared to my mentors is to touch base every once in a while (like once a semester or year) with a lab member to see if our expectations for one-on-one meetings are matching up and ask if there’s anything they need from me.

      I have a similar seminar situation to you: I attend three per week, and I ask my lab members to go to the one most aligned with their “community” every week. Even if the seminar is away from our particular topic of interest, I think trainees benefit a lot from seeing different styles of presentation and thinking about what can make a talk successful versus not.

      • I agree with you and drmsscientist. As a graduate student and postdoc, I tried to go to at least one seminar in my general field each week, regardless of the reputation of the speaker or how well the topic aligned with my field of expertise. Listening to talks helps you realize what methods are effective for presentations, and more importantly, can help you think “outside of the box”. Just because it’s not closely related to your topic of interest, doesn’t mean you won’t learn something valuable and be able to apply it to your research. Now that I’m at a PUI, where visiting speakers are VERY limited, I look back on the days when I could attend multiple talks per week with fondness. At my new institution, I attend virtually any talk by an outside speaker, even if it has nothing to do with my field. I still think it’s a useful exercise, and good for developing community as drmsscientist pointed out.

  5. The plan that I go with for my lab is: One GM per week, alternating between a research update talk and literature presentation. This works for now since my lab is small. But as it grows I will probably have each meeting consist of both types of presentation (and keep the once per week frquency). At first I toyed with letting my group pick papers to present, but it became clear early on that they needed guidance. Now I select the paper and distribute it a week ahead of time to the scheduled presenter and rest of the group. I know it seems authoritarian, but it really seems to work much better for everyone, since the literature is more closely related to what we do. People are more engaged and we tend to ask questions like “what can we apply from this paper”, “what would we have done differently”, and “why did it go to this journal”.
    The research presentations are periodic updates in ppt format, with some “chalk” time. I don’t feel this is all that demanding – but I am also against the idea of having GM become too much of a time sink. Or even worse, an excuse that lab members use to take a whole day sitting in front of a computer preparing slides. I suppose making the presentations “chalk-only” might help in that regard, but there is too much data that would need to be presented in graph/spectra format for this to work.

    • Thanks for sharing! I often suggest papers for journal club, and even assign the presenter-paper duo if something seems matched to someone’s interests. I find my postdocs can choose good papers, but other lab members struggle more with this (understandably). The “chalk talk” format works well for us as theoreticians, but even when we read review papers or data-driven papers we’ve found using the board helps us distill what the paper was trying to accomplish, what the gap in knowledge is the authors wanted to fill, and what assumptions the authors made more easily.

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