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!

Moving Abroad for Science: US to Europe Edition

A few weeks ago a colleague of mine wrote about pursuing a PhD in Europe, and tried to highlight the ways it is different than the U.S. PhD.

But there’s more to being abroad than simply the difference in acquiring a PhD.  While I can only speak of my experience as a postdoc moving to Germany, there are a few bits of advice I can impart to others considering the big move.

  1. Find someone to rely on back home. There are all sorts of problems you won’t expect and you’d need to be in the States to deal with, but you won’t be. So you’ll need someone there who can handle things for you. Sometimes it’s small things (mailing address for your US bank account), sometimes more substantial things, but either way, having someone to take care of these needs is SUPER important. In my case, it’s my mother (side note, she’s also my editor… and a number of my blog posts are a collaborative enterprise). She has a power of attorney over my affairs, so when my credit card needs verification, and the company refuses to allow me to call from any number besides a U.S. number, my mother can step in and handle it. It solves all sorts of problems, and I’ll be honest, I would be screwed without her help (not just editing help, although that’s pretty awesome as well). So find someone who can handle such things and then tell them all the time how awesome they are for helping. [Editor’s note: A power of attorney is a very powerful document, so be very cautious in selecting the person to whom you grant power to manage your financial matters.  And a specific power of attorney, limited in scope, is a better choice than a general power of attorney.  Make certain it has an expiration date – better to go through the hassle of reissuing one and sending the new one out than to have an open-ended document.  Just ask legions of U.S. Navy sailors who have come home to find all their belongings disposed of by “friends.”]
  2. Figure out how to move money. I won’t recommend specific ways to move money internationally and deal with currency exchange (although I have strong opinions and if you want to know them, email me), but regardless how you do it, you’re going to need to figure out how to do it. There are still some bills I need to pay in the U.S., that I can’t pay from my European account, and vice versa. This was startling for me at first, because I hadn’t considered it (what do you mean I can’t set up auto payments from my European account?), and seemed difficult to figure out. But I have great friends who have already solved this problem, and reached out to help, and while I won’t endorse services here, if you find yourself in the same situation, feel free to reach out.
  3. Set up temporary housing for your arrival. Every time I’ve moved in the U.S., I usually have had an apartment sorted before I arrive in my new location. I know the routine:  you find a place online, contact the owner/management company, pay the deposit, move in. This is not how it worked in Germany (and when I explained this simple system to Germans, they were blown away). In Germany, when you rent an apartment, it is viewed as an intimate relationship between you and the building owner. You have to see the apartment (sometimes a few times), you have to provide evidence that you have money/a paycheck, you have to talk about each others’ families and goals and dreams, and after they have done that with you and a few other perspective tenants, you all gather for a ceremony where the owner gives out a rose to the person they choose… just kidding about that last part. But the other bullets are all true. Culturally, this is SO different from the U.S. (where the relationship is: “Here is my money, I’d like to move in now”).  I was fortunate and had a place to stay for 2 months, but you should plan (including budgeting) to have a temporary place set up while you sort out your semi-permanent home.
  4. Culture shock is a real thing. I have traveled all over the world (see blog here), and I’ve even lived abroad a few times. But boy, almost none of that prepared me for the culture shock of being in Germany. And Germany isn’t even the most extremely different place I could have moved! There are all sorts of quirks ( ingredients that aren’t available, always paying cash for everything, the entire economy and all grocery stores being closed on Sundays), but the biggest thing is that tasks that were easy at home are more difficult abroad. An excellent case study is the experience of buying a lightbulb. If a light goes out at home in the U.S., I’ll casually stroll down to any number of stores where I know I can purchase a replacement. In Germany, none of those stores exist. And lightbulbs aren’t sold where I thought they should be. And I don’t know how to ask for help at the stores where they might be sold (I don’t speak German). So an easy, mundane task is now a HERCULEAN issue that takes energy and perhaps half a day to solve. And once I succeed, I need to go home, curl up in a ball and sleep from exerting so much effort. Things definitely get easier, but expect there to be a transition period.
  5. ADVENTURE! There are many difficulties of moving abroad, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how awesome it can be as well. I get to travel to cool places around Europe for the weekend. A Friday night in Paris has become the norm. I jaunt up to Berlin for an afternoon. The Alps are a short train ride away. And mundane things are sometimes more difficult, but they are also sometimes more spectacular. I will be walking home from work, or grocery shopping, or going out to eat, and it’ll all of a sudden hit me: I live here. My every day is an adventure, because I choose to go on this adventure. I often think of Bilbo Baggins (“I’m going on an adventure!”) and embrace the struggles because they are only small speed bumps on the massive highway of fun I’m having.

Again, this is just my experience and I tried to make it general. Also, I moved for my postdoc, and as mentioned before, the PhD is VERY different in Europe.

But I’d be happy to hear other experiences! Comment away!


The European-Style PhD

In this weeks continuing series of “When I Grow Up” I’m covering a topic for which I have no direct experience (this is going to become an ongoing theme). The good news is that I have friends who do have experience (Hooray!) and they will be stepping in to add their voices/experiences.

This week I asked my colleague, Eckie Stolle, to answer a few questions about the differs I see between the American and the European systems. Similar to how every American PhD program is a little different, every labs program is slightly different. But this is some insight to the major differences.

How did you apply for your PhD? Does it matter what University you get your PhD at? Is the department important?

At the time I was doing my BS project I thought about possibilities. I was quite interested to continue with it as my PhD project, but there was no specific funding for it. So I had the choice between getting my own funding, for example through a scholarship, or by applying to one of the PhD positions regularly advertised. In Germany, state funded scholarships exist, but require the student to have achieved quite good grade. A drawback of them is, that they do not pay very well and they do not include significant funding for the project. In addition, receiving a scholarship means not paying numerous income related taxes. Even if this sounds great, it means that nothing is paid into the social system for you, nothing for retirement and nothing for unemployment. In contrast to the scholarship, the PhD position as a proper employment, so your tax deductions help you later for your retirement and to have financial support if you do not find a job immediately after your position finishes. In my opinion this is the far better option. These positions are usually advertised publically and for a specific project which has been funded already. Normally a PhD student in such a position is paid half time and the idea is that you work on the project and at the same time have the possibility to do your PhD. To get such a PhD position you obviously need to apply for it and beat the competition. Thus, it helps if you know already what your interests are, which direction you will want to go into, whether the supervisor or department/Uni in question are well suited for this and so forth. There are many student which take up a such a post, just because it suits fine at the time, or its local, thus there is no need to move etc. This should be not a reason to start a 3 or more years investment of your time. To know whether the respective University or department is a good place is difficult. While some universities have a good reputation, this seems to play a smaller role in Germany, than elsewhere. Maybe the factor that some universities receive special excellence funding could be helpful for a PhD project, but that’s hard to predict beforehand.

What’s the application process like? How many other people applied to your position?

It is like a regular job. You send your application for the advertised position, you get invited for an interview and then have to get lucky. I don’t know the number of applicants or interviewees anymore. Other projects in our lab, received a few dozen applications and typically 3-6 applicants are invited for an interview.

Did you start your PhD at the beginning of the school year? Is this normal?

No, the start of the PhD project is entirely dependent on the term of employment and the specific project. Except for specific reasons, they could start all year round.

How much input did you have in your PhD project?

The main frame and aims did not change much, maybe only the technical or analytical approaches as well as certain additions I created to add value to the results.

My PhD project started out as a funded project in which certain aims had to be achieved. While this leaves not extremely much flexibility to develop your own project and follow own ideas, I found it to be quite valuable. First, having a specific aim can get you started really fast. As a fresh PhD student I was quite naïve anyways and did not have enough knowledge on the specific topic to think about own new ideas. With a project where the frame is set, there is still plenty of room to develop strategies to achieve the aims and get more along the way. I felt relatively free to develop technical approaches and specific aspects of the project. The more I got into it, the more ideas came up and I was able to explore them in parallel. This often came at a very low additional financial investment as there were many synergistic effects. In the end I got two publications from this part of my PhD alone. And based on my acquired knowledge I developed new ideas of which one became another, completely knew project.

Did you teach during your PhD? Is that more or less than most European PhD students?

In Germany lecturing is supposed to be limited to postdoctoral positions and above. In some cases a PhD student would maybe give a single guest lecture on a specific topic. But seminars and practical courses as well as supervision of bachelor or masters student projects are part of the duties of a PhD student. Most PhD positions are third-party (e.g the German Science Foundation) funded to conduct a specific scientific project, thus teaching activities are limited. I think this is different to some other European countries where PhD position are regularly much more involved. There are some cases where a German PhD position is funded full-time rather than half time when a higher teaching load is expected.

How often did you meet with your advisor? How often did you meet with your committee?

For a typical PhD project there is no (or at least there was no) committee, only the PhD supervisor, called doctor father/mother. During my time, we had a general lab meeting on Monday and an area-specific lab meeting on Wednesday morning, both of which were lab-chat style and very informal. Here we discussed briefly progress, problems, results and future directions. Every couple of month, I think it was a ca. 6 month interval, I gave a seminar presentation about my project. Other than that, I occasionally met with my supervisor to discuss specific parts/issues of the project, but it most often were little updates/results requiring small changes in the approach or additional materials to be ordered. I think this was good balance between supervision/control and freedom to organize/develop the project. Also, the time sitting in meetings was not getting out of hands.


The other side: I Love Being a Professor

Everyone I know is leaving academia. It started a few years ago with great postdocs taking alternative academic positions (head of an NSF institute, lead of a nature preserve, etc.), and has now progressed into most of my friends moving to industry (data science, start ups and biology industry).

So it’s really refreshing to read a post about someone who flat out loves their job. Maybe there is still hope?

Read more here.


The Sprint Towards the Finish Line

The last few entries in this series have been about how difficult graduate school is. The recent piece by 

“But with all of this attention paid to the “being miserable” part of grad school experience, we stopped talking about the things we need to talk about more. So here goes. Grad students, you are extremely worthy and accomplished. Getting into grad school demands hard work, dedication, stubbornness, and sheer skill. You’re here because someone saw something in you, and decided to help you nurture it. You may not know what this someone saw in you; this someone may not know it either. But it’s here. Your mental health matters.”

This week’s advice is about the hardest part of graduate school, the final sprint. In the American PhD, the last year, and especially, the last few months, are by far the hardest*. So here are some tips/things to think about to get through:

  1. The main thing is keeping “the main thing” the MAIN thing. This is catchy and easy to remember. It is also a nice way to say, “stop procrastinating”. Do you really think that alphabetizing your students’ test scores is a good use of your time? Or writing four different versions of that quiz for your students? I hate to tell you this, but you’re avoiding writing/finishing your dissertation. Those things seem important, but that’s because you are blinded by your need to do anything except the main thing. Keep that main thing the main thing.
  2. Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be finished. This is the biggest misconception, as graduate students tend to be perfectionists.  The belief is that the submitted thesis/dissertation is the height of perfection. NO. Perfect is for Michaelangelo and the Sistene Chapel (and x-rays tell us a lot about the layers underneath the final paintings of a lot of masters). What the thesis/dissertation needs to be is finished. Stop spending your time crafting perfect sentences and perfect figures. Make sure they are good enough, and then move on. As much as you think it’s critical to make sure that last little bit of the figure looks so perfect your advisor will cry, that extra time you are spending is actually procrastinating.
  3. Communicate with your committee as much as they are willing. Yes, they are super busy with important jobs. Spoiler alert: one of those jobs is helping you finish. The last thing you want when you walk into your defense is a surprise. SURPRISE that one of your committee members doesn’t like any of your analyses. SURPRISE that another one thinks the entire dissertation needs to be rewritten. SURPRISE that one of your committee members is going to grill you during your defense. Each of these are real situations that people I know have experienced.  Each of these likely could have been alleviated by talking to their committee members ahead of time. Make sure you and your advisors are all on the same page, and address any concerns they have with your dissertation BEFORE you are in the room.
  4. Just keep swimming. I must have said this a million times towards the end. Yes, it’s a saying from Finding Nemo (an excellent movie for any biologist) and yes, it’s a kids movie (my previous statement stands). But it really does help; you just have to keep your head down and keep going. It’s tiring and exhausting but you’ll get there!
  5. Support each other. This one seems obvious, but it’s worth saying. This may be the final sprint, but remember you wouldn’t have gotten here without support, and you’re unlikely to finish without it. Make dinner for someone who’s close to the end, or take care of laundry, or be a shoulder to lean on. And when you’re close, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Team effort all the way.

So good luck, and remember, it gets better. No, but seriously, after you finish tipping the celebratory drink and sleep a lot (this was the best part  -. I left my “congratulations you finished” party early so I could sleep soundly for the first time in months), the “post PhD” life is way better than the “pre PhD” life. It really does get better!

*One of the interesting thing about living abroad is noticing the difference between earning a PhD in America and earning one in Europe.  I’ve recently talked my colleague here to describe the difference, and here I’m explicitly talking about the end of the American PhD (the European one has a different and more drawn out ending).

Thanks Dynamic Ecology!

Saving me the time of having to write a “how to pick a great postdoc” Dynamic Ecology has already written a great post about how to pick a postdoctoral advisor.

I agree with almost everything they wrote. So if you are finishing up and want to know where to go next, start here.


Me and my postdoc advisor Robert Paxton doing field work in Scotland. Very good advisor!


Are you my advisor?

Ok, great news!  You’ve figured out you want to go to graduate school (thanks to this post here) and you have decided on your degree (MS vs PhD).

Now the question is: who will you work with? Graduate school is different from undergraduate in that where you go isn’t nearly as important as who you work with.

A good advisor will increase your number of publications, assist you in avoiding going too far into debt, and generally make your life better. So before you sign up for this person to be a critical, and intrusive part of your life for the next 4-10 years  (there are many people who spend a really long time in graduate school), here are some things to consider.

  1. Do you want a big lab or a small lab? A big lab means your advisor will be splitting his/her time between you and the 10+ other graduate students and postdocs in the lab. This can mean that you’ll have a good community of peers (and suffering together makes your bonds closer, remember), and you might get more help overall. Conversely, a small lab means your advisor spends more time with you. If you want a lot of attention and time from your advisor, fewer other people in the lab might be ideal.  But if you’ve got a problem with authority, or are nervous in front of your advisor,  this might result in problems. There is no right answer to this question, it really is personal preference. But it’s something you need to think through before you seek out an advisor.
  2. What is the funding situation? This is one of those things you need to ask up front, and means more than YOUR funding situation. If you are not independently wealthy, and are seeking financial assistance to complete graduation school, you need to gather critical information.  Are you going to have to teach every semester? If you love teaching and want to inspire young minds, this might be good, but keep in mind, every hour prepping for class, teaching class, and having student office hours is time not doing your primary research. So teaching at lot will likely affect how long it will take you to get your PhD. Are you going to get paid during the summer? Are there opportunities for you to get funded (grants in progress), or does your advisor already have money (multi-year research grant)? Not only are these important for your PhD (having to take a second job really cuts into your PhD time) but also for your future (being in debt forever really sucks).
  3. Are the current and former students of the advisor happy/satisfied/graduated? This one is key. If you want to know what an advisor is like, ask his students. Don’t limit yourself to just the students currently in the lab (especially if they are new), but ask the older students. And the recently graduated. Honestly, towards the end of my PhD, my friend Bobbi and I stopped being invited to the recruitment events… because the department wasn’t wild about the new students seeing how much we were suffering. But these are the people you want to talk to. They will give you the honest opinion on the things the advisor is bad at. And here’s an important point: EVERY ADVISOR IS BAD AT SOMETHING. You need to figure out if their “bad something” is a thing you don’t care about, or things that you actually like/require in an advisor.

Pick someone who is right for you. There are a lot of advisor-advisee interactions that make a  graduate student successful.  An advisor that someone else had difficulty with may be ideal for you, your personality, your interests, and your work ethic.  That’s why the big lab vs. small lab, and the qualities of the advisor are so important. Picking a person who is a really good scientist, but not a good fit for you is going to end up difficult for everyone involved.