Wednesday, June 24, 2015

On lab meetings

I've been kicking around science for a long time - a loooong time. My apprenticeship to this tenure track position has been over 20 years in the making. For any of you out there that thinks professors are overpaid, and over-protected, think about that. I've been slogging away for 80+ hours a week for crap wage, no benefits and often for free for almost 21 years. There is no possible way that a job paying 5 digits is paying me anywhere near what I deserve.

But, that's not the point of this post. The point of this post is to discuss the lab meeting. Lab meetings - every P.I. thinks they need them, few P.I.s know how to run one. I've belonged to at least two labs that did not hold them, and one lab that held one for multiple hours on random Fridays. Both situations set me back as a student, as a scientist. Given I have taken the responsibility to train several students early in my position, I've spent a lot of time thinking about how to run a lab meeting. Why would I spend time doing that rather than hacking away at my data? The lab meeting is the cornerstone of lab productivity. Run it well, and you provide a good scaffold for your students and staff to complete tasks, produce science, publish papers. Muck it up, and you breed resentment, get confused about what is actually being done, and waste everyone's Monday morning.

I have one major suggestion, under which all other suggestions fall

Respect the time of your staff and employees
This is basic stuff. You may be the P.I. but you aren't a god, a king or a totalitarian president. If you are holding lab meetings so your staff and students can update you on minor issues, listen to you discuss the square footage of your new apartment, watch you grill one person relentlessly over their work, sit and wait 20 minutes for you to show up, or listen to you speak to one person the entire time, you are demoralizing your lab, and you need to take some courses on effective people and project management. Contrary to raging popular belief amongst the more senior of scientists, there is no place for enormous egos in experimental science. Act this way, and you will lose talent in your lab. Act this way, and your work will make you unhappy.

What does this mean? It means do, do the following:

1) hold a regular group lab meeting - even if you think there might not be any major break-throughs that week. Hold a regular meeting at least every two weeks where you discuss scientific progress, or attempts at progress in the lab

2) hold individual staff/student meetings at other times - no one wants to hear you discuss your grad student's class schedule, or the blow by blow of setting up purchase orders or reagents with your lab tech. It's an enormous waste of everyone else's time. Save that for your mid-week 15-30 minute update one-on-one meeting, in your office.

3) require update slides - make your staff and students provide you with slide that state the precise things they have done since your last meeting. Screen the slides. This is really important - all to often lab meetings turn into "round table discussions" that are really just a P.I. talking a single person about their progress without letting anyone else in on what that person is actually doing. I once sat in a lab for 2 years and had absolutely no idea what the person next to me was actually studying because it was never explicitly discussed. You want to kill morale, make a student feel like an imposter? Talk to only one person at a time and never provide your staff with an overview of the activities of the lab. You will succeed in alienating everyone but the tech in no time. 

4) show up on time - seriously. If you are showing up to your own meeting late, why the hell are the rest of us sitting here?

5) hold the meeting at a sane hour - you have to teach at 9 am? Great. You teach at 9 am. The rest of us do not need to be in a meeting room at 8 am on a Monday. To a person who works an 8-4 job that probably sounds a little uptight. When you work 80 hours a week and have a very reduced social and recreational life (i.e. when you are a grad student, a postdoc), you aren't heading to bed at 10 pm on Sunday. You are up troubleshooting problems, launching analysis, reading, sending those update slides at midnight. When you as a P.I. holds an 8 am meeting on a Monday you are saying "I don't give  rats a$$ how exhausted you are" to your students. You are taking parental time from their kids. You are effing up morning work outs. You are basically saying your little update matters more thant their real lives. It doesn't. Early morning meetings are not the hallmark of productivity. They just mean you don't care about how they affect the people who work for you. You teach at 9 am Monday? Fine - hold your meeting Tuesday morning at 9 am.

6) dedicate at least one meeting a month to reviewing articles - part of your job as a  P.I. is to train students, and training them how to read and evaluate papers is part of that. A major part of your job is to provide an atmosphere where productive creativity can thrive. To do that, you have to provide space for your students and staff to read what interests them. Let them bring articles to you on any topic. Let them talk about these things out loud and invest in the science. 

7) make arrangements for food and coffee/tea - you don't have to provide it yourself. Have rotation. Food lightens the mood, creates community, and forgives the poor person who ran out of their house to get to the meeting on time and skipped breakfast.

8) hold a early-mid meeting at the beginning or end of the week  - no one wants to talk on Wednesday for the first time and no one can effectively act on bench work or even order processing in the afternoon.

 Do not

1) hold meetings that run more than an hour

2) speak to lab members individually without explaining the context of your discussion to everyone else

3) speak in languages that the less than the entire lab can understand. Practicing your Spanish? Good for you - but if anyone else in the lab does not speak Spanish, you have just alienated them. You have just told them that it isn't important if they understand what is happening in the lab.

4) yell

5) lose your temper

6) insult your staff or students

7) grill anyone - really need to get down to the nitty gritty of some tiny aspect of data collection, save it for your mid-week one on one meeting

8) hijack a regular lab meeting to discuss some minute aspect of theory or analysis that has always bothered you. Book a part of a meeting to discuss that stuff. Give your staff and trainees time to prepare so they can contribute

9) talk about your personal life for more than a minute - no one showed up to this meeting to hear you wax on about your ongoing search for the perfect apartment.

10) declare "we are having a lab meeting in an hour" whenever you please - lab meetings are regular scheduled meetings. They are not meetings that happen in the space called "Friday afternoon" just because you feel like having one. You couldn't have one Monday? Oh well. You'll have one next Monday.

11) don't skip multiple meetings in a row - as a P.I. you will have conferences and special guests and grant deadlines and inconvenient overseas skype calls. Sometimes all of these things will get in the way and you will have to cancel meeting. One cancelled meeting is fine. Two makes it difficult for the staff and students to keep on top of what is going in the lab. Three cancelled meetings  - not cool. Everyone falls behind. You want to book a month long vacation or field expedition - fantastic. You want to tell everyone on Thursday at 5 pm that for the third time in a row you don't see a point in holding a meeting that Monday, you will fray the morale of your team.

With that, I give you guidelines for productive lab meetings. Good lab meeting = healthy, happy lab and science. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

The tenure track

After all that education, you'd think the tenure track job at an R1 institution would fill a person with a sense of relief. As an undergraduate, graduate student and postdoc you train for years and years. More than a decade - sometimes more than two decades. You'd think the logical feeling would be "finally, I get to be in charge".

I wish that was my feeling. I think had someone come to me in the middle of my PhD and said "you can ditch this and run your own lab now", maybe I would have felt differently. I certainly felt more competent at the end of my PhD than I now do at the close of my postdoc.

Part of my hesitation is certainly due to the growing detachment between my benchwork and my analysis. My analysis requires a team of people with stronger math and computational skills than myself. I don't mean "strong math skills", like someone who took an extra statistics class. I mean someone who got a PhD in math. Someone who is writing bioinformatic programs. My feeling of inadequacy has certainly grown since 6 weeks ago, when I was ordered by my boss to tear down the analysis of my most important paper for the 7th time and do something completely new - and was assigned a collaborator who, by and large, creates analytical structures and codes by himself without must explanation.

So the jump to tenure track is extremely nerve racking.

It's also a bit of a financial hit. That might sounds kind of crazy, but my husband's income will take a hit in this move. Our income, overall, will be lower than it was during my graduate school days. As we near the end of our 30s, and develop our little family, the question for me really becomes how much longer am I willing to ride this horse?

From the perspective of asking questions, starting research and pulling papers together  I'm willing to ride until I can't ride any further. From the perspective of sitting in one spot for hours on end while I work out the tiniest of coding problems that had halted all progress for 3 or 4 weeks - AND at the end of that process not being sure how much more willing I am to continue coding....research.....getting out of bed....

This experience of repetitive failure has had me thinking about Fabulife and how I want to move forward with this blog. It seems to me that most of my time in this space has been spent trying to convey that graduate school doesn't have to and, more importantly, shouldn't financially devastate a student. I came out of my graduate degree with a really nice chunk of money in the bank, my credit cards clear, some investments and a student loan paid off. I'm leaving my postdoc with a lot less money in my pocket, and I'm heading into a tenure track position that will not pay me what I deserve for my training or efforts. On top of that my days, because I work in experimental biology and deal with great deal of computational work, are filled with failure. Like every other scientist, I fail every day. I fail and fail and fail until something works. It's tough on the soul. The repeated mousing is tough on my wrists.

Enjoying oneself within the means provided by the tight budget my academic life has provided means more than just figuring out how to buy a low cost engagement ring. It really means being able to cope with the academic life as a whole. So, this is where Fabulife is headed - a more honest description of the totality of life on a budget, life on the campus. You've been given a heads up. It ain't all going to be cheery accounts of budget friendly whathaveyous. S#$% it getting real in this space.

So, to recap - tenure track still means counting change, starting your own lab is frightening when your postdoc work isn't published yet, the blog is shifting in focus.

See you soon!