Whether you have a few hours a week of a lab tech paid for by your startup funds or you’ve been running your own lab for years, a high functioning team can help you achieve your research goals. Senior research staff often have greater insight into the details of executing research than PIs (they’re paid to attend to the details and free your time!), and at least one senior mentor says she learned everything practical she needed to know about doing research from her staff.

The advice below comes from senior lab staff at Vanderbilt working in a range of scientific areas from wet lab to clinical research to quantitative science.

Keep them in the loop: Have regular meetings with a running agenda. (Protip: Use something like a REDCap survey or Google doc to allow all members of the lab to add to the agenda.)

Include them in meetings outside the lab when appropriate. Defer to them when you’re not sure—they probably know your study protocol better than you.

Have them write down systems and processes. Especially as your lab grows, it will get harder to remember those passing requests to order this reagent or fill out this piece of paperwork. Having documented methods of doing things also helps with cross-training.

Encourage communication with other areas at your institution (e.g., if you expect a staff member to keep track of your funds, ask your budget officer to cc that staff member on emails).

Understand the difference between research staff and administrative assistant. A whiz at writing IRB applications may not be great at calendaring. Research staff may not have the access that admin staff do to an institutional credit card or account to purchase a book from Amazon.

Use your power and funds for good: Build up your staff by paying for or allowing time off for courses, workshops, or intensives that will make them a better employee. Pay for their membership in a relevant professional organization. Buy them useful books or software.

Include staff as authors when reasonable:

  • Did they write your IRB application and study protocol?
  • Did they enroll 100-1000s of participants?
  • Did they run experiments?
  • Did they clean data?
  • Would you have a paper to write without their contribution to the work?

On Teamwork

If you have multiple staff members, team members should be aware of what’s involved in their co-workers’ responsibilities. Emphasize cross-training and having predetermined backups for sick and vacation days.

A team with members who all understand each others’ work provides several benefits. Multiple connections between team members prevents siloing and allows for collaborative development and optimization of processes and tools. It also creates staff-to-staff mentoring opportunities. Backup coverage for days off is easier; no one feels guilty asking for coverage because it’s expected and not done as a favor. Critical functions will always be managed by trained, experienced staff even if multiple people are out.

Thanks to Sarah Jones, MPH, CCRP and Tonya Yarbrough, RN, for their contributions to this post.

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