Management and motivation in the lab

During your scientific training nobody teaches you how to manage and motivate other people and as a new PI sometimes you feel you're thrown into the lion's den with no preparation or protection.
I'm trying to collect as much information as possible on management and motivation applicable to a lab setting, to become a better manager and improve productivity in the lab.

Posts in this page will be short posts, reviews or links on books, websites and presentations I found useful and I urge the reader to recommend info to add to the list.

Time management tips:
My post on Who's got the Monkey and how to deal with too many things to do
Time and project management websites to organize your work life
- Some useful websites to save you time

Career development tips:
- Develop your own Individual Development Plan and ask lab members to do the same
- Becoming a leader instead of a manager
Self-sabotage in academia
- Branching out to new fields
- Looking for the right mentors
- Advice to apply for an academic or non-academic position

Motivation tips:
Introduction of Daniel Pink ideas on what motivates us
- Start a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE)
- Allow employees to have 20% protected time to work on their own ideas

Lab management ideas:
- Lab running tips collected along the way (here and here)
- Remember to get your own free copy of the HHMI Lab Management book, "Making the right moves"
- Set up end of year meetings and performance reviews
- Decide what your lab culture will be and stick with it
- Money saving: "never pay retail"

Recruitment - Learning how to hire series:
- #1 Advertising in unusual spots: Craiglist delivers for research assistants
- #2 Mistakes to avoid during hiring and on-boarding
- #3 Checking references as a networking tool
- #4 Things I learned about picking people
- #5 How do you build and maintain a team?


  1. Do you have any advice on accepting graduate students? At the beginning, when you need any help you can get, one gets desperate to have people in the lab. What are the deal-breakers for taking a student, even if it means you won't have anyone to help do experiments?

  2. Hi, this is tricky because it will depend on where you are and what you want your lab to be like. I have only had one rotating student so far and we both decided it was not a good fit. I have hired 3 postdocs. At the beginning the personality of the people you get in the lab makes a huge difference in establishing culture, work ethics and the general vibe of the lab, but when your labs gets bigger this may not matter quite as much. The one advice I have received from many many people is "Do not succumb to the empty lab syndrome. Do not accept someone only because you need people to do stuff" If you are not absolutely thrilled to have a student in the lab and are not excited to train them and work next to them for the next few years, I wouldn't accept them. I need students to have a mind of their own and to be excited about my science. If the grad students rotating with you are not convincing, a good tech on their way to grad school is a good alternative, if you treat them like a very junior grad student. You can train undergrads and if you get them as freshmen and sophomores, they will pay off after the 1st year and stay for a while mostly for free. Or you can hire a postdoc.
    The only thing you should check is whether there is a requirement for student training for your tenure. Some schools expect you to train a certain number of students, some others don't, and you should plan accordingly. Hope this helps.

    1. This is very helpful to me, thank you. May I ask how you and the student determined that the fit was not good? I have a tech, but he is generally 9-5, so in some sense, I do have empty lab syndrome... I need more hands on deck to pipet stuff while I'm stressing out over a grant deadline.

    2. She was efficient and conscientious, but very quiet and shy, and would not seek out help if she had a problem. Also I'm not sure she liked the independence she was given. I was in the middle of writing multiple grants and setting up the lab, so I gave her a little bit of freedom to see how she would handle the project on her own, got her to do literature searches and see if she would come up with ideas. I'm doing so much stuff that I need people to reach out to me and I tend to prefer self-directed people. I only had two techs in my lab at the time who were both outgoing, self-directed and organized. They both wanted to go to grad school and in fact one of them just started in a major graduate program, so they were working very hard, definitely not 9-5 hours. Now I also have a postdoc, who's really great. Year 1 felt like being stuck in quicksand, but now that I have grants and good people things are moving at a good clip. Good people whose work you can trust are really really important.

  3. Good morning. I'm a big fan of your blog, thank you for sharing your experiences, they are wonderful. In your comment above you mentioned that you've hired 3 PDs over the last year.. I was wondering how long each of them stayed in your lab and how you managed to let them go after you finding out things didn't work.. I hired my first PD 9 months ago and realized his work ethics and attitude problematic within the first 3 months, but I thought I would give him some time to improve, and now I'm pretty sure it is time to let him go - actually I have to wait for another 3 months until his 1yr term expires. Thanks.

  4. Hi, thank you for following the blog! My PDs are all relatively new, one started in the Spring, one in the Fall and the 3rd one actually took longer than expected to finish her PhD, so will start early next year. So far I'm very happy with them and I have had no work ethics or attitude problems. I took a long time to find the right people and I made a point to talk to multiple references on the phone before hiring them. I do always discuss work ethics and creativity with references, but you never really know what you are going to get or what could happen. I had friends who had the same problem you're having and had to let people go, and I would say, just let him go as soon as you possibly can. A bad PD can set you back several months and waste a huge amount of resources. Good luck!!

  5. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be really something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and very broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!