Running a Successful Lab

This week’s post is from a established and successful professor at an R1 institute. The author  prefers to remain anonymous, but is happy to pass on valuable information for starting a lab and becoming a successful academic. This post also represents the last post in the “When I Grow Up” series. However, if you are at a different stage in your career (how to run a field station, how to design a study abroad class, how to not burn-out, how to sabbatical, how to set up an NSF research station, etc.) and want to write a blog post about it, please contact me
You’ve landed a job at a research 1 university – congratulations! You’ve set up your lab, you’ve got tenure, you’re ready to go! Now… how do you do this long term?
One of the keys to success is how you set up your lab,  and this can vastly influence your chance of being successful down the road.
1) Have a specific research project that can carry you through the first few years. You’re going to be writing grants, recruiting graduate students, possibly teaching a new (to you) course, and getting things up and running. Yes, this is a busy time, but you are expected to be producing during this period. Make sure all your research isn’t focused on starting out brand new, and have something already simmering to carry you through those first tough years.
2) Make sure you have a deal with your chair for teaching assignments and committee assignments. Most places give you up to a year with no teaching sometime in the first years. Each new class taught will take about 8 hours of preparation for each hour of new lecture. I took my time off in my second year ( I showed up with funding), so got my lectures prepared in year one while purchasing stuff and getting the lab set up. I rocked and rolled the research in year 2 +, generating the papers that got me tenure a few years later.
2.1.) Women tend to accept more than their share of committee assignments, and sometimes teaching assignments. They should realize their dude colleagues will be ok with this, but it’s not ok. That’s why it is even more imperative that you have a deal with your chair capping your assignments. 
3) Use your start up funds to hire the best people you can. Getting crappy people working in your lab, as techs, students or post-docs, is like a ship taking a torpedo under the water line. You may not notice it at first, but the ship is listing if not going down. Spend money, immediately or soon after you start, on hiring good people. It’ll make the difference immediately and pay off down the road.
4) Get a good mentor, a more senior faculty member who has learned some of the time management issues, and is willing to provide advice on personnel management. Most places have some training sessions for newbies, so get some of that. Grad school and post-doc jobs largely do not train you on people management, and this part of your work can use up significant amounts of actual and emotional time. Learning how to set and enforce boundaries is a critical professional skill.  The administrative part of people management is not intuitive and there is rarely a complete, comprehensive reference/guidebook available to assist you through the labyrinth.  By being connected to someone in the department who has already gone through this, and is willing to be your Sherpa, you save yourself time and effort trying to reinvent the wheel. You are not the first person to do this, and asking for help/advice is not weakness. So find yourself a mentor.
5) Hard work is not enough. You have to work smart. Surveys show that assistant profs work  55 hours per week. MORE time is not necessarily good time. Use your time efficiently and make sure you do not burn out. Work-life balance is a whole other topic.  This goes back to whether you really WANT a research one job, and whether you have a partner (if you want one) who understands that that you’re gonna be busy and focused. But this is NOT the time to start a second career doing something else. Family issues definitely depend on a supportive all-in partner and understanding on your part.
6) Networking in your field is important (meetings, conferences, etc.), but doesn’t help if you’re not bringing your A-game. It’s great to have good friends, but in the end, being recognized in the meritocracy is more than bonhomie. Your real goal is becoming a good scientist. Just showing up at conferences without presenting ground breaking, or even just solid, research is a waste of time. Pedigree and who you know matters, but ultimately, not nearly as much as good research which has seen the light of day. Consider presentations as a way to showcase your awesome work, not as your ultimate priority.
7) Make sure you’re genuinely passionate about biology. It’s what gets you through the tougher parts in this most difficult of times. This is what I mean about being sure you WANT a research one or academic career (turns out small colleges, especially the really good ones, choose faculty on the same criteria as Research 1 institutions, believe it or not). It’s going to be really much harder if biology is not your top three distractions. In the end, it has to be fun (e.g. I still get an actual physiological buzz when a paper gets accepted for publication).
Don’t forget, this is the dream! Make time for fun things, including but not limited to, your work!

One comment on “Running a Successful Lab

  1. […] up from yesterday’s post, here’s another When I Grow Up about surviving professorship. This week Joel McGlothlin […]

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