Ancient empires, or three musketeers?

Jul 17 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

One of the things I'm quite sure each and every one of you has been told is that an important part of your training is having the opportunity to mentor people. And it is, for sure! Mentor away, you TT hopefuls, because if you can't teach another person how to run a western blot or design a properly controlled experiment, you're in the wrong business. But what nobody tells anybody is that you also have to know how to manage people, which is completely different from mentoring them.

By somewhat of a coincidence, my grad student and my technician started full-time in the lab on the exact same day last fall. This had its pros, as it created an instant camaraderie, a we're-all-in-this-together motivation that I think was good for morale as we all got to opening boxes and whatnot. And as we started having enough supplies to actually do real science things, I taught both grad student and technician everything, together. And when I had a bright-eyed cadre of undergrads join the lab last spring, they all learned the same things as each other, and they all helped each other on the same project, because really we were just piloting behavior stuff. This was the Three Musketeers style of management--all for one and one for all--everyone knows how to do everything, all working towards a singular goal. Good for team spirit, but not so good for people feeling like they had any personal stake in the work.

This summer, we've had a bit of a changing of the guard. Old tech is out, new tech is in, and I'm taking a more "divide and conquer" approach. I want my trainees to feel more personal, individual ownership of the work they do here. Now that more techniques are up and running (and my first grant is funded, w00t!), I can start assigning projects and letting the students take on more responsibility, freeing up my tech to do what she was hired to do: organize my shit and be a kick-ass microscopist.

So far, I think it's working. Grad Student has been mentoring the summer students to much success, and I have been mentoring the mentoring, a little. The undergrads are thrilled to pieces that we're letting them do the things they're doing, and taking on their new responsibilities with much seriousness and enthusiasm. People are invested now, and that's a very good thing, as far as I can tell.

In the next six months, a second grad student and a post-doc will join our happy family. I'm sure the lab dynamic will shift yet again, but this time I think/hope I'll be better prepared to help them find their place a little more easily.

5 responses so far

  • gerty-z says:

    kick ass, Dr. Becca! Getting the lab going and figuring out the managing thing is hard. I'm still working on it, for sure. I started from the beginning with everyone doing their own project, and it was very hard to get things going. But now that we have some momentum I'm glad that I did it that way. But it was rocky sometimes in the beginning (I did have to fire people 🙁 ). Lab management is still a challenge, and I think that you have to take different approaches all the time depending on who is in your lab, what other obligations they have, what other obligations you have, the funding, etc.

  • RespiSci says:

    I have found that in well-managed places (I have experience in industry, academia and government), the importance of personnel management and the time it takes is acknowledged, accepted and encouraged. In not-well run places, personnel management is waved off as being a waste of time. Kudos to you for recognizing the importance in achieving a well-functioning lab team.

  • Megan says:

    Awesome! When, as a grad student, I took over some undergrad volunteers I started off by saying to them 'okay, what do you know about the big goals of this project?' and it turned out they didn't know anything. They'd just been taught how to sort the artifacts. So I gave them a 'here's what we're trying to learn, and here's what role your work plays in that' talk, and I can't tell you how it impacted motivation and effectiveness. Students who had been problems in the past became much more invested (still not 'the best' but better), and it made them look at the work differently, so they did their jobs better and asked good questions which helped the project progress. Thank Richard Feynman for that tip. I can't imagine how difficult it is to run multiple layers of leadership, sounds like you're doing great!

  • Dr. Cynicism says:

    I'm also a fan of the divide and conquer technique -- it gives everyone a particular feeling of expertise in something. But also make sure everyone is well aware of the overarching goal of the project. In my opinion, every single one of them needs to know where the whole thing is headed and at least have an understanding of what other people are doing to contribute.


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