How to Manage a Lab

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Senior scientists and BPS members Suzanne Scarlata, David Piston, and Kathleen Hall shared their  experiences and insights on how to effectively juggle the demands of a faculty position.

How much time should a junior faculty member devote to teaching?

Piston: This varies with the institute. It is important to have senior members in your department, whom you trust, who can advise you on teaching expectations.
Hall: You have to know what the value system is at your institution.
Scarlata: At my university, the expectation is that one-third of your time be devoted to teaching, one third to research, and one third to service. Make use of growing information on the web to help update your lectures, which may be outside your area of expertise. At many institutions, new faculty members do not teach in their fi rst year to protect research time.

What was your biggest mistake as junior faculty?

Scarlata: Learn to say, “No”! When she was starting out, Scarlata often felt obliged to run experiments in her specialty for senior faculty as a service.
Hall: As female faculty, Hall felt that she was the token representative on every committee. For example, she reviewed grants for the NIH as an Assistant Professor. She cautions that this was not an eff ective strategy, “Do not do this, protect your time!” Avoid activities that may seem to flatter you, but do you no favors.
Piston: He regrets that as junior faculty he spent precious hours writing his own software to save a few hundred dollars. He now appreciates that time is money and strongly cautions against pinching pennies for supplies or equipment when 80-90% of a budget goes towards people’s salaries. “Time is one commodity that you cannot buy back!”
Harel Weinstein: (President of the Society) Harel Weinstein, while not part of the panel, suggested that junior faculty do say yes to some things: for example, pursue good collaborations at your own institution. Weinstein also advises junior  faculty to spend their start-up money! Do so wisely and purposefully, but do not save the money at the expense of  productivity. To sum up, “Time is the most precious commodity.”

How do you conduct research at a small teaching institution?

Apply for R15/AREA grants, which are special grants given to small institutions that receive limited NIH funds. Other sources of funding could include HHMI, NSF and IGERT grants. Collaborate with a lab at a larger institution that has  everything set up. Go there in the summer, or a day/week if close by, or send your student to this lab to train and obtain data.

How much time do undergraduates take up in your lab?

Undergraduates are best in large labs that have senior graduate students or postdoctoral students who can take them under their wing and train them.

What is your management style? Is it uniquely your own or is it influenced by your advisors?

Piston: His management style has become more formal or codified over the years. He found that while some people can be left on their own, others need more structured sessions of mentoring. Each person needs to be treated differently.
Hall: One’s management style continually evolves. If it does not work, change it! Consider taking a class in management or read some publications on the subject.
Weinstein: You can never go “on automatic.” Continually re-evaluate where you stand in terms of your position, your  assets, and the changing environment. One also needs to be able to deal with colleagues. Find a good mentor or interact with a group of people. Remember, that you are also a mentor to someone else.

As your lab grows, how do you maintain close contact with primary data?

Piston: He advises being a reviewer of your own data. Be alert for what does not make sense or does not fit. The further you go away from your own data, the more important it is that you act as the first reviewer of a potential publication.
Scarlata: She likes to spend a few hours on each student’s project, spending time at the microscope and looking firsthand at the images.
Hall: She advises being in the lab enough to know what works. Importantly, the lab environment should encourage people to report on what does not work. She has a “wall of data” in her lab where raw data can be posted for everyone to see and comment. Th is is a very effective method of getting input from the lab, and peer pressure ensures that everyone takes this seriously. She suggests being creative with your ideas and looking at lab notebooks frequently.