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At the Helm: Avoiding Management Mistakes

It really is like running a business. By the time you have run a successful lab for 4 or 5 years, with one or two NIH grants, a multitude of administrative responsibilities, and a payroll of students, technicians, and postdocs to meet, you won't need to be convinced that a little management expertise is a valuable thing to have. Most PIs would agree in hindsight that paying more attention to organizational and managerial skills at the start of the principal investigatorship would have saved a lot of time, money, and worry.

Hindsight is fine, but foresight is far more useful and efficient. Most young academic scientists make the same managerial mistakes, and you can avoid these mistakes by learning from the experiences of those who went before you. Here is a list of five mistakes many beginning PIs make, along with ways you can avoid reinventing the wheel yet again:

1. Some PIs ignore tenure requirements for several years in order to get research under their belt--and then they have to scramble.

Most people don't like to think about tenure, and some even view tenure requirements as a bureaucratic impediment to good research. But getting tenure must be part of your plan from the moment you start your first academic position.

Happily, the steps and timing needed to advance your career as a scientist are remarkably similar to the ones needed for a positive tenure decision. For both, you need papers, grants, and good relationships with and respect from colleagues. So it makes sense to use the tenure requirements as a framework for a 5-year plan.

Organize your years: Year one, meet with chairperson or tenure committee to discuss tenure requirements. Do preliminary experiments to support a grant proposal. Submit a grant. Write a manuscript. Give a departmental seminar. Hire a technician. Year two ... and so forth. Leave nothing to chance! Even if things don't go exactly according to plan, it's still a good idea to have a plan.

You should also talk to departmental and institutional colleagues who have gone through the process to find out what is expected but isn't written down or otherwise made explicit. Be absolutely proactive in identifying and approaching colleagues to help you through the tenure process (as well as for help with scientific and personal issues). Don't expect to find one all-encompassing mentor who can help you with all aspects of your tenure requirements; target people to help you with particular challenges along the way.

You can learn a lot from watching. Watch how other successful scientists manage their labs, live their lives, and negotiate the tenure-and-promotion process. But be critical of your role models; what works for them might not work for you. What works in a large, established lab may be completely out of place in a small, emerging group. And be choosy: Use what works best for your own lab management style.

Remember, too, that neither tenure nor scientific success is based wholly on the quality of your laboratory work or how many papers and grants you have. Success will also depend on how well you get along with department members and other colleagues, and what, in their view, you bring to the department, the institution, and science. Blowing off "extras" such as teaching, committee work, grant-review panels, and so on, might result in you getting blown off as a bad colleague by a tenure committee, or as a bad collaborator by scientists outside your department who might be asked to write external letters. Listen, be helpful, and cultivate relationships.

2. Some PIs let the lab assume its own shape and style.

When your lab is just you and perhaps one other person, it may seem unnecessary to organize reagents and hold regular lab meetings. But, suddenly and inevitably, you will find yourself digging for an unlabeled tube at the bottom of the freezer, or desperately trying to convince students of the need to learn presentation skills, and wondering how things got to be such a mess.

Things get to be a mess when there is no framework, philosophical and practical, for the lab to grow into. You must supply this framework, and you must begin to build it as soon as you move into your new lab. Let the practical reflect the philosophical: Set the lab up to make it easier for lab members to do what you deem is good science.

Start by knowing what kind of lab culture you want. If you are looking for accountability, build it into the system by stating up front how authorships are decided and by making sure you know how much money is being spent, and by whom. Decide on a format for lab notebooks, and check everyone's notebooks regularly to be sure they are thorough and clear.

If communication is important--and how can it not be?--make sure people feel comfortable saying what's on their minds, that lab meetings are effective and well-attended, and that everyone contributes. In big ways (actually giving your lab members a talk on ethics) and in small, but not necessarily less important, ways (always showing up on time and keeping other commitments), demonstrate that honesty, integrity, and courtesy are an indispensable part of your lab philosophy. Encode those values into lab procedures.

Don't feel like an ogre when you make rules. The lab needs rules to run efficiently and effectively. Meeting attendance policy, attendance expectations, designation of common areas, safety regulations, rotating lab jobs, reagent-reordering procedures, and keeping track of stocks--these are all examples of organizational situations that benefit from rules--from structure. But be careful: Don't get seduced by rule-making for its own sake. Each regulation, no matter how small, should help the lab run well and free people to do creative research. Each regulation must make sense.

3. Some PIs assume all people they hire will be motivated and competent.

Salaries for yourself and lab workers will take the great proportion of your funding. And the people you choose will determine your success or, at the very least, the speed of your success.

So it is ludicrous, but not uncommon, that a PI spends more time choosing a computer than in picking a lab technician. (That said, it is also true that many new PIs will have more choices in centrifuges than they have in lab technicians.)

Even if you don't have many choices, it helps to know what will work or not work for you. Understand yourself and your needs, and know what traits are absolutely necessary and what kind of person you wouldn't choose even if they were the last one on Earth. For example, if you absolutely abhor lateness, and a candidate's recommendation says that that person is frequently not on time, you need to decide if you can live with this or not, because it isn't likely to change.

Quirks aside, many experienced PIs have figured out that it is a good idea to hire for character, not for technical expertise. Anyone who is reasonably intelligent can learn a technique, but honesty, good humor, and the ability to get along with difficult people will go much further in the long term.

And how do you know what kind of person an applicant is? You will develop your own list of questions to ask, and there are a multitude of books that will give you interview hints, but the most important lesson in hiring is this: The best predictor of future performance is past performance. So ask for references, and call every one!

You know what kind of references people write. You may even write them yourself: overblown or tepid, seldom negative, and even more seldom to the point. Perhaps letter-writers don't want to hurt someone's feelings or chances for a job, or maybe it's a fear of legal retribution. Or maybe it's the fact that the more a PI wants someone out of the lab, the more likely he or she is to write a false or misleading recommendation; how else to get that person to leave? But mysteriously--and very helpfully--few people will prevaricate in the same way on the phone. Ask a direct question and you will probably get an honest answer.

So ask: Did she get along with others in the lab? Did he understand what the experiments were about? Would you hire her again? Ask the questions that will give you the answers that matter to you. Is he dependable, can he troubleshoot, is she organized, can she work independently?

Once you have hired someone, work closely with that person until you are sure he or she is doing science the way you want your science done and will continue doing it that way even when you aren't looking over his or her shoulder. You want to be able to trust and believe that person's data completely; furthermore, you want that person's work to bear the imprint of your scientific style. So teach everything, from choosing and following a protocol to deciding how many repetitions are needed, within your system, for a valid result. Teach not just techniques, but how to think like a scientist and remain ethical, while also being politically savvy. Teach within the organizational and philosophical framework you've decided you want for your lab.

After you have trained a few people at the bench, those people can train newcomers, but you still need to pay close attention to how your lab members do their science. So spend as much time at the bench as you can during your lab's early years: Your involved presence is the best way to keep lab members motivated to do good science.

4. Some PIs refuse to intervene in lab conflicts.

Most beginning PIs don't envision themselves dealing with the personal side of lab member interactions. Keeping watch on projects, research, and resources is difficult enough without also having to deal with personalities and personal disputes. Dealing with even the fringes of people's personal lives may seem distasteful, maybe even invasive, especially to a PI fresh from his or her time of postdoc equality and camaraderie.

But when personnel issues cause tension in the lab, you refuse to intervene at your peril. Bad situations don't usually get better by themselves--they get worse and worse, sometimes leaving the PI with a room of people who won't talk to each other, and whose research is consequently impacted. A dysfunctional lab can be caused by a long string of experiments that don't work, by one disgruntled lab member, or by your own burnout and anger. When morale is low, it is part of your job to step in and deal with the situation or individual that is the source of the trouble.

One indication of trouble is the marginalization of one or more lab members. Hopefully, you have been very explicit about your intolerance for sexual or cultural harassment, and hopefully you are around the lab enough to notice lab member's interactions. But marginalization can occur for a variety of reasons, some very subtle. For example, in labs with a majority of single and childless members, productive lab members with children might be viewed with disdain, as they may spend fewer hours in the lab (even if they are just as productive). And in labs in which most members have children, the parents in the lab may view the free time of the childless members as frivolous, and negative attitudes may smolder. No matter what the reason, you need to step in and address the issue.

Another situation in which you must intervene is when the mental or physical health of a lab member is threatened. Be alert to changes in physical appearance or in personality of the people in the lab. Acquaint yourself with signs of depression. Breakdowns and suicides happen, and you don't want them to happen on your watch. Don't assume that the person in need will seek help, or that someone else will step in: You are the head of the lab, and other lab members may well wait for your action. Your best bet is to get that person to health services or human resources, where objective and qualified professionals can help.

5. Some PIs don't adapt to their ever-evolving lab.

A good lab is never static; your lab will constantly change with time. The biggest change will be with personnel. There will probably be more people as time passes, and those people may have more training. What worked for you as a starting investigator with novice lab members won't necessarily work with a more experienced group of lab members. For example, while a new technician may not mind being micromanaged, a successful 4th year student might well be resentful. Personnel are not the only variables: There might be more or less money, more and different projects, perhaps even a move to a different institution. Some changes will be easy for you, and some will shake your comfort zone horrendously, but the better you cope with the unexpected, the more successful you can be.

So your style as a leader will need to evolve if you want to remain effective. Be aware and stay nimble, for as soon as you recognize and deal with one change, there will be another in sight.

Be prepared, also, for changes in what brings you satisfaction. Many PIs find that papers and honors and promotions eventually pale beside the satisfaction of mentoring lab members and building an extended network of scientists and friends. The science business is an emotional one, filled with highs and lows, and the relationships you build can be the buffer and inspiration for your work. Doing good science, doing it with energy and integrity, and motivating others to do the same turns out to be a pretty good way to run a life

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