Read our COVID-19 research and news.

The I-Spy Guide to Group Leaders

Contrary to popular media opinion, scientists are not all identikit spec-wearing boffins with crazy hair. Certain traits and characteristics do tend to come to the fore, but science attracts as wide a spectrum of personalities as any other career. So with tongue firmly in cheek, there follows a probably not so inaccurate guide to group leaders. Which one do you have? Which one will you become. ...

The Party Animal

When you go for a job interview with a Party Animal (PA), the first question they ask you is, "Do you drink?" The second question they ask you is, "Do you drink a lot?" Life in their lab is one long fiesta complete with loud music, humorous posters, and group meetings in the local pub. It's not all fun and games though--the motto of the PA is "work hard, play hard". They are often successful, especially as they tend to attract bright young scientists looking for a lab with a life. Their highly social nature also leads to lots of contacts and collaborations, forged over late-night whisky sessions at conferences (and yes, they always turn up to the lectures the next morning). The downside of working for a PA is that it's sometimes easy to forget you are being paid to work, not to play an interlab Virtual Pool championship all afternoon. ...

The Earth Mother

A caring, sharing type, the Earth Mother's (EM's) lab is full of pot plants (a.k.a. potted plants in North America) and children's paintings. It is a happy environment full of peace and joy. Unfortunately, it's also a place of poverty. EMs never have much money to spare--it's all been spent on students and postdocs that she felt sorry for and agreed to keep on when they couldn't find a job anywhere else. The EM's research is creative and leftfield, hence the calming atmosphere of the lab. Without the potpourri, everyone would be tearing their hair out over their seemingly impossible projects. Lab meetings often feature homemade cakes and occasionally the EM's offspring if the babysitter has let her down yet again.


What's that clattering noise? It's the sound of Superwoman's high heels thundering down the corridor, striking fear into the heart of anyone foolish enough to brush against her shoulder pads. Superwoman is a firm believer in the "to beat the men you must be tougher than them" school of thought, and woe betide anyone who disagrees. She is successful, driven, and (unkinder souls might say) incredibly pushy, with the capacity to reduce grad students to tears. At conferences she's first onto the microphone after every talk, jumping on the speaker with gladiatorial fervour. At poster sessions she'll pin you into a corner for hours, grilling you on your results. But Superwoman is not really as frightening as first appearances might suggest. When you catch her gyrating wildly on the dance floor at lab parties and conference dinners wearing a leopard print cardigan, you know she's human after all.

Edward Deadwood

Edward Deadwood had a good idea ... once. Unfortunately, he hasn't had another since 1986. Seemingly immune to the demands of peer review and departmental gradings, he manages to hang on in his fusty lab by the skin of his teeth. Going to work for him spells career death for any aspiring young scientist. He has fallen woefully behind with the latest research, only recently coming to terms with the wonders of PCR. Not only does he believe molecular biology kits are an unnecessary expense, he will also expect you to work with equipment made in the 1970s. Unless you fancy an academic career atrophying quietly in some godforsaken broom-cupboard of a lab, don't even think about coming to work here.

The Megastar

If you're lucky enough to work for a Megastar, you're more likely to see them on the telly than in the lab. Benchwork is constantly interrupted by having to dodge film crews or field phone calls from pushy journalists and the Nobel Prize committee. The benefit of working for a Megastar is that your friends and family are dead impressed and you get your papers into big journals. The downside is that you're pretty much on your own when it comes to lab work, but who cares when you're breaking out the champagne to celebrate the good news from Sweden?

The Spontaneous Idea Generator

There's never a dull moment working for a Spontaneous Idea Generator (SIG). The only problem is sorting out the diamonds from the dust. One week they're telling you to do this or that exciting new experiment. Next week (once you've bought all the stuff and got started) the SIG decides that it's a terrible idea and it would be much better to do something completely different. They embark on wild flights of fancy, single-handedly coming up with a cure for AIDS, a new method for genomic sequencing, and the key to human evolution before you've even finished your morning coffee. Never make the mistake of showing a SIG any kind of uncertain or preliminary data, as they will take it as gospel and you'll be off on some madcap series of experiments before you realise you got the tubes mixed up.

The Spinoff King

You know you work for the Spinoff King (SK) when the university patent lawyer spends more time in your boss's office than you do. Made a new antibody? The Spinoff King will be flogging it to your competitors before your test blots are even dry. Discovered a new protocol? You can almost see the pound signs flash in his eyes. No self-respecting biochemistry department should be without the SK and his microcompany, taking up all the lab space with their high-throughput screening. The constant stream of suit-wearing venture capitalists can also be annoying, especially when you're working on something with zero capitalisation potential. Working for a Spinoff King will serve you well if you want to go into industry, but should be avoided if you believe your science (and soul) are not for sale.

The Slavedriver

What do you mean, you're not coming in on the Bank Holiday? He wanted those results yesterday. Thinking of going home? It's only 9 p.m.! The Slavedriver expects you to be in the lab by the time they arrive, and still be sweating away when they leave. The fact that they work from 8.30 a.m. till 10 p.m. is irrelevant. Holidays, personal problems, and any illness less serious than a coma are classed as pointless distractions. And don't think the arrival of the conference season means you can sneak off for 3-hour lunch breaks in the local park--the Slavedriver eschews meetings and other such diversions, preferring to spend quality time in the lab. Slavedrivers are usually men, with compliant wives keeping the house running and two (or is it three?) anonymous children. The Slavedriver loves to fill the lab with male Japanese postdocs, mainly because they work every hour that God sends and their wives make rather nice sushi for the lab parties. You can tell someone works for a Slavedriver by the spotty, ghostly pallor of their skin--the result of a lack of sunlight and using the departmental chocolate machine as their sole carbon source.


If it has lights, LCDs, and preferably some kind of robotic arm the Technogeek is in heaven. The words "high throughput" or "computer modelling" are music to their ears. At heart, Technogeeks are little boys deeply in love with gadgetry, computers, and things that go beep. As a result, their labs tend to look more like the set of Star Trek than a place of academic endeavour. Working for a Technogeek is often a good idea, as they have an abundance of cash, lots of flash machines, numerous collaborations, and therefore loads of papers. They are often recruited to big institutes, ostensibly on the premise that they are free to carry out their own research but secretly because everyone wants their technology. This leads to the perception that the Technogeek is not a "real" scientist, but merely a tool--within a couple of months they are reduced to the same status as next door's spectrophotometer.

Kat Arney is currently hoping that none of her previous employers is reading this. ...