Sunday, October 26, 2014

How do you keep your lab on track?

Dr. Yellow Shinkansen, Japan
It's merit-based salary increase time at my institution and before I left for vacation at the beginning of October I had a cram all my lab annual reviews into one day, so that I could complete the reviews and turn in the paperwork. Back to back annual reviews are exhausting, so I don't recommend you do it, but I do really like doing periodical official reviews of my lab members and they also really appreciate it. I have already discussed why I do annual reviews and some ideas on how to structure them here and here, so I'm not going to delve into that, apart from saying that reviews are really important to keep you lab on track, to keep in touch with what is going on in people's minds and to give them a chance to discuss their career plans.

While I was traveling I visited a friend who just sold a small biotech company she had started a few years ago with her husband and we talked a lot about her experience and how she built a lab for developing assays and cloning. In going from 1 to 15 people, one major thing to keep in mind was culture, as the people who had come in first were used to a lot of attention and felt "like family", and pretty soon the place became a business and some of the early people became upset. Defining your relationship with everyone at work so that there are no favorites and everyone feels valued so that they remain productive, is incredibly difficult.

One of her solutions was to have quarterly reviews, so that the "This is how you are doing"/"How are you?" discussion was given continuity throughout the year. With continuous reviews it was not a surprise to someone that their boss thinks they need to improve and will not give them a raise, since they have had multiple chances to discuss their performance and improve. Quarterly reviews were capped at 15 mins unless the employee thought they needed more time and needed to discuss something specific. In general academic lab scientists may be more motivated than biotech employees and not necessarily just see it as a job, but I have realized that in the weekly meetings I sometimes I get too worked up on the particular experiments that are being done and the next steps and forget to take a step back and make sure that the postdoc or student thinks of the project as a whole. So a "Where are we? How should we structure the paper?" meeting every few months may not be a bad idea in addition to a discussion on performance and career objectives. I have been more often in situation where people felt ignored than smothered and I have a tendency to be pretty hands off myself, so I am hoping that having frequent fixed checkpoints may hep me be more involved and the lab peeps feel that they know where they are going. Since our usual review is at the end of September, we will try January and May and see how it goes.

Picture by ませはるゆき (間瀬晴之_撮影) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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