Running a Lab Efficiently


Most graduate students find themselves with research responsibilities, and for many this may be the first time they're given the opportunity to help run a lab. Learning how to direct and motivate people is just as crucial as understanding experiments or perfecting techniques. Edyta Zielinska presents excellent advice and suggestions for first-time and experienced lab managers alike in her article, "Motivate Your Lab: How to Run an Efficient and Creative Lab Without Micromanaging" in the June 1, 2012, Careers issue of The Scientist.

To reach the overarching goals of your lab, it's helpful to understand how to motivate each individual researcher. Social psychologist David Neal suggests determining which types of goals work: "Some people are better at avoidance goals. Some are better at approach goals." Knowing how to frame issues for each individual in your lab will help your team be more productive in reaching goals. Are your researchers motivated because they want to solve the problem, or are they motivated because they fear a lack of progress?

It can take years for researchers to see the results of their work in the lab. To stay motivated and focused, your team members will need grit. According to Angela Duckworth, a psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania, "Grit is defined as a characteristic of someone who sustains interest in projects, does not give up despite encountering obstacles, and diligently finds ways to improve his or her work." Grit can be cultivated; help your labmates by regularly reviewing roadblocks so you all can get in the habit of addressing problems early on.

One of the best ways to improve your skills in any area is to purposefully focus on your needs for improvement. Get in the habit of asking your researchers to spend a portion of their day or week on an issue or competency that they are not comfortable with. Encourage your team members to specify areas that need improvement and create a plan for addressing these areas.

"Mistake" is not always a dirty word. In fact, it can be helpful to make mistakes along the way, and an effective manager will encourage their researchers to try a new path. Rather than focusing on the negative of mistakes, "a careful assessment of all the specific reasons for the failure can make the setback feel more like an opportunity to learn than a disappointment," Zielinska advises. Consider implementing a practice of sharing setbacks during lab meetings.

Managing your team includes keeping tabs on motivation levels. If you find that a lab member is lacking interest in the project, consider the stated goals and the amount of correction you're providing. If a goal seems unimportant or unattainable, your researchers won't work diligently to reach them. Likewise, if a researcher feels that you're micromanaging and overcorrecting her work, she'll feel underappreciated. Review your actions first when working to maintain or increase motivation.

When setting goals for your lab, it can be encouraging for your researchers if projects are broken into small goals rather than establishing one large, overarching goal. This helps you and your co-researchers stay focused and motivated to make progress rather than be discouraged by the large task ahead. Addressing manageable sections of a project can lead to improved morale within your lab.

Managing a lab requires much more than technical know-how and scientific knowledge. To run a successful lab, you'll also need to know how to get the best and most from your fellow researchers and teammates. Directing and encouraging your team with clear and transparent policies and goals will help you use your most valuable resources in the lab-the researchers. Take the time and initiative to establish strong leadership and project management skills now while you have the opportunity to watch and learn from other lab managers and Pis on campus.