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.