Not that Kind of Boss: Tales of Team Management and Mentorship
One of the more challenging aspects of being a principal investigator (PI) and running a research lab is people management. Labs are complex environments comprising hourly technicians, salaried research scientists, undergraduates in their first lab, graduate students in training, and postdoctoral fellows working to launch independent careers, all performing different tasks, with different expectations, and regulated by different offices (Student Affairs, Graduate Affairs, Postdoctoral Affairs, and Human Resources). Complicating the matter further, as PIs, we are also responsible for providing career guidance, career development, and scientific training (in all its forms) for our lab members, which I broadly define as mentorship. Rectifying management and mentorship is not trivial, especially for the new PI. Here is how I, a junior faculty member, am approaching management and mentorship. As always these days, n=me.
The disclaimers: I am a newer assistant professor and a management novice. My career path has been a straight shot through undergrad, grad school, and a postdoc. I therefore find myself closer in age to most postdocs rather than other PIs. I believe myself to be a reasonable manager and mentor, but I have attended enough “how to be a good mentor” talks and known enough self-proclaimed “good mentors” to know there can be a large disconnect between appearance, perception from trainees, and reality. Over the years, I have also realized that the PI behaviors I thought were “cool” as a graduate student are not necessarily reflective of good mentorship and managerial practices, and in some instances, have been predatory. These are my attempts at balancing a supportive environment with professional boundaries.
Staff and trainees are not friends: For many of us, the biggest struggle is advocating and supporting our staff and trainees without wandering into the minefield of treating lab members like friends. As humans, we like to belong and generally want people to like us or think we are fun. Being a new PI without a large number of other young faculty around can also make it oh-so-easy to go into the lab and cultivate friendships with your subordinates. Yes, subordinates. If you sign their hours, control when they graduate, serve as a sponsor on their grants, or control their career outcome in any way, they are your subordinates. Yes, this word also bothers me. I consider myself a career guide and a trainer of scientists, not a manager. But a manager I am, and making important decisions that impact the well-being of the lab (such as firing, changing projects, deciding conference attendance, etc.), are much easier when I am seen by myself and my team as a boss and not a friend.
The lab is not a family: It can also be easy to fall into the “lab as family” trap. From the PI perspective, investment in trainee development and happiness while maintaining authority can feel like parenting. Again, I am a mentor and a manager, and not a parent. My authority is granted by the institution and my staff and trainees are adults. On a lab member level, the lab as a family mentality can give rise to some strongly gendered expectations (for example, “lab mom”) and complex dynamics that are much better left out of a work environment and research program.
Set expectations: On the advice of many wise new and established PIs, I have developed a fairly exhaustive lab manual that discusses what my roles and responsibilities are, as well as the roles of staff and trainees. Spelling out what my role is helps define what my staff and trainees can expect from me, both as a manager and a mentor. I am also of the scientific generation that used the Individual Development Plans (IDPs) throughout their postdoc, and although irritating to fill out, they are very useful for tracking progress. We review these annually to evaluate performance for every single lab member. These provide actual data for progress and are not reliant on my recollection of lab members’ accomplishments, struggles, and goals.
Meet regularly: This is an obvious point. Meet with your lab members. We do a weekly lab meeting where we cover data and papers and address any lab business. This is a mandatory meeting (excluding lab members out of town), during business hours, scheduled to accommodate all schedules, and attended by all lab members. I also meet with every lab member one-on-one once per week to discuss progress, evaluate concerns, and address any mentorship and managerial issues.
Promote inclusive lab events: Lab events are non-work focused events with the goal of fun, team-building activities. I am still learning to navigate these successfully, but ideal lab events should appeal to all lab members and avoid activities that are objectionable or unpleasant. These events should also not put undue burden on your staff and trainees. If you have parents in the group, appreciate that after-hours events might not be possible or might require a child-friendly environment. These events should cater to everyone and not just the lab members who share your interests. Finally, although everyone’s financial reality is different, it is likely that you as a PI have more disposable income than your trainees. Pay for the pizza or laser tag.
Support lab events independent of yourself, the PI: It is also important for your lab members to do fun things independent of you. If that means a 4pm coffee break for the lab or trivia night, these are all great. I buy coffee and occasional cookies for the break room, and I love to see lab members sitting around and discussing science and life.
Encourage outside interests for your lab members: Although we do have lab activities, I also strongly encourage interests outside of the lab and independent of other lab members as well. It is much easier to weather the ups and downs of research if the lab is not your only interest and lab members are not your only friends. This is true at all levels, and especially for PIs.
Promote growth: One of our biggest responsibilities as managers is promoting growth in our trainees and staff. This can include broadening the skill set of your technicians, working with trainees to write fellowship applications, or facilitating new collaborations between your postdocs and neighboring labs. I know my staff and trainees all have goals beyond my lab, and it is important for me, as a mentor, to facilitate their development. The IDPs are particularly useful in tracking progress towards these goals.
Accept that mentorship and management are challenging: Effective training and mentoring, along with personnel management, are one of the most challenging aspects of being a new PI, and it is also something in which we have the least experience. You will make mistakes. I certainly have. Read the management books, talk to your mentors, and be patient developing these skills.
After running a lab for two years, these are my thoughts on management and mentorship. Obviously, it is too early to assess outcomes. Whether my staff and trainees would agree I am avoiding the friends or lab as family traps, I cannot say. But I do know I am working towards keeping a professional distance while being invested in their happiness and success. Stay tuned for more tales!
Did I miss an important point? Do you have questions or concerns about the post? Or perhaps an anecdote to contribute! Feel free to send some electrons my way in the comments, via Twitter @PipetteProtag, or through traditional electronic mail firstname.lastname@example.org