The Professor, the PI, and the Manager

Here’s a question that I often ask myself: How much should I be managing my lab?

I was meeting with one of my trainees the other day and this grad student mentioned that they sometimes feel like they don’t know what to do during the work day and that they sometimes feel like they are wasting a lot of their time. As a result, this student will end up going home and maybe working on a coding class, or (more often) doing non grad school things. We talked about what this student is doing and I agreed: they are wasting a lot of time, and not really working very effectively.

Before I go on, some background…

There is no shortage of direction in my lab, or at least I don’t think so. I think I have a lot of things in place. Here’s a sample:

  • I have a detailed lab manual that all my trainees have access to. I’ve sent this document to my lab members a few times, and it covers a whole range of topics about how I’d like my lab group to work.
  • We meet as a lab 2 times a week. One day is to present literature (journal club) and the other day is to discuss the current research in the lab. There are readings to prepare, discussions to lead, and I expect everyone to contribute.
  • I meet with each trainee, one-on-one, at least every other week, and we go though what each student is working on.
  • We have an active lab Slack team, every project has a channel.
  • We have a project management Google sheet with deadlines and tasks that everyone can edit, add things to, see what’s been done and what hasn’t been done.

So there is always stuff to do but I also try not to be a micromanager of my trainees. I generally assume that students will want to be learning and developing their scientific skill set. This student is someone who has been pretty set of looking for work outside of academics, and I’m a big champion of that. I am a champion of helping any of my trainees find a good path. But despite all the project management and meetings this student was feeling lost and never sure what to work on. And so they were feeling like grad school has nothing to offer in the realm of skill development for this career direction. Are my other trainees also feeling the same way?

Too much or too little?

I was kind of surprised to hear one of my students say that they don’t know what to work on, because I have been working harder than ever to make sure my lab is well structured. We’ve even dedicated several lab meetings to the topic.

The student asked what I work on during the day, and it occurred to me that I don’t always discuss my daily routine. So we met for over an hour and I showed this student what I’d been working on for the past week: an R-notebook that will accompany a manuscript I’m writing that will allow for all the analysis of an experiment to be open and transparent. We talked about how much time that’s been taking, how I spent 1-2 days optimizing the R code for a computational model. How this code will then need clear documentation. How the OSF page will also need folders for the data files, stimuli, the experimenter instructions. And how those need to be uploaded. I have been spending dozens of hours on this one small part of one component of one project within one of the several research areas in my lab, and there’s so much more to do.

Why aren’t my trainees doing the same? Why aren’t they seeing this, despite all the project management I’ve been doing?

I want to be clear, I am not trying to be critical in any way of any of my trainees. I’m not singling anyone out. They are good students, and it’s literally my job to guide and advise them. So I’m left with the feeling that they are feeling unguided, with the perception that that there’s not much to do. If I’m supposed to be the guide and they are feeling unguided, this seems like a problem with my guidance.

What can I do to help motivate?

What can I do to help them organize, feel motivated, and productive?

I expect some independence for PhD students, but am I giving them too much? I wonder if my lab would be a better training experience if I were just a bit more of a manager.

  • Should I require students to be in the lab every day?
  • Should I expect daily summaries?
  • Should I require more daily evidence that they are making progress?
  • Am I sabotaging my efforts to cultivate independence by letting them be independent?
  • Would my students be better off if I assumed more of a top down, managerial role?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I know that there’s a problem. I don’t want to be a boss, expecting them to punch the clock, but I also don’t want them to float without purpose.

I’d appreciate input from other PIs. How much independence is too much? Do you find that your grad students are struggling to know what to do?

If you have something to say about this, let me know in the comments.

5 thoughts on “The Professor, the PI, and the Manager

  1. Robert Sekuler (@robsek)

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on lab management (yet another thing I did not learn in grad school),. To me, it sounds like you are doing all the right stuff. One comment: I, too , have an extensive lab operating manual, but my experience is that –with rare excepetions– kids either don’t read it, or don’t remember all the wisdom it tries to impart. Maybe I should have expected that. In fact, the manual begins with a quote from Plato (Phaedrus): “Then anyone who leaves behind him a written manual, and likewise anyone who takes it over from him, on the supposition that such writing will provide something reliable and permanent, must be exceedingly simple-minded; he must really be ignorant…. if he imagines that written words can do anything more than remind one who knows that which the writing is concerned with.”

    Again, thanks for your thoughts about managing a lab and its members, Hope you won’t mind if I share that with some of my colleagues. Bob Sekuler

    1. jpminda Post author

      Thanks for the comments Bob and happy to have you share with colleagues. As for my lab manual, it’s entirely possible that I’m the only one in the lab who will ever read it…

  2. Andrea C.Val (@andrea_cval)

    Hi Prof. Minda: Thank you for sharing your concerns.
    As a way of digressing from reading controversial tweets by my union, I ended up visiting your lab page, and actually reading the ‘detailed lab manual’. I was impressed with its organization, concise information, and clear guidance; making me thinking about my grad experience which was deprived of such opportunity, and wondering how lucky your grad students must be. Next, I clicked on your blog, and your recent post on your students’ apparent lack of motivation and goals. It surprises me because it looks contradictory. My experience is neither in psychology nor in lab, but in education. So, if you don’t mind, I share here some of my views regarding the questions you raise. How much independence is too much? There are many variables to consider. For example, students’ academic cultural background; if they are international students coming from outside North America, they may expect more a ‘teacher-centered’ approach, where students are usually told what to do. It takes time to change this ‘mindset’. One strategy that may help them is actually what you are doing here: let students create a collaborative blog where they can write about their lab experiences; if lack of goal is a problem, perhaps they can set their SMART goals for the day or week, and discuss them with their peers. They can also create a collaborative ‘checklist’ with the tasks they have to perform each day in the lab. Another strategy is to implement a ‘reflective practice’ in the place of ‘daily summary’. They can briefly reflect on their SMART goals (if they have achieved or not) and set action plan on their collaborative blog, by inviting peers’ responses and feedback. This would create an internal dialogue among your students. Perhaps you can request Phd students to moderate it, if necessary. It becomes also a form of mentoring, depending on the group dynamic you have. I believe these strategies favour a bottom-up approach and are student-centered. The objective is to cultivate students’ independence by having them taking their own responsibilities in a collaborative environment. Well, thank you again for sharing your lab experience and raising interesting pedagogical questions. Best regards, Andrea.

  3. jpminda Post author

    Andrea, thank you for all these helpful comments and suggestions. I think you are exactly right that it’s “contradictory”. It may just be that I’m not approaching each student in the optimal way and it might help to be more proactive in terms of goal setting. I especially like you suggestions to encourage them to work on shared goal setting from their perspective, not just mine.

    I do have great students, and part of my concern is just trying to figure out ways to be a good advisor too, finding the right balance.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. Pingback: How do you plan to use your PhD? | John Paul Minda, PhD

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