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Lab Management

CREDIT: Peter Vidor/Fan Chung Graham

One of the ironies of a scientific career is that once scientists have been fully trained to do science—once they become really good at it—they usually have to leave the bench and become managers. Adding to the irony is the fact that they typically receive very little management training.

Running a lab poses many challenges, including managing people, projects, and finances and establishing workplace practices that encourage productivity, safety, ethics, and high employee morale. Over the years, we at Science Careers have gathered advice from several experts in order to help inexperienced group leaders learn the ropes—and established principal investigators (PIs) improve their management style. In this article, we provide a list of the best of those resources.

It's essential to work hard to create a laboratory culture where safety is taken very seriously.

General lab management

Just got that tenure-track position? New PIs need a mix of scientific, fundraising, and management skills to launch their laboratories. They also need the right attitude, writes our Mind Matters columnist Irene S. Levine in "Making the Leap to Independence.”

Among the mistakes new PIs make are five that are particularly common. Kathy Barker, author of the definitive guide to managing an academic laboratory, gives advice on how to avoid those mistakes in "At the Helm: Avoiding Management Mistakes.”

There's more advice in "Special Feature: Laboratory Management.”

Managing people

One of the first tasks for a new faculty member is to fill his or her empty lab with people. Here is how to hire your first lab tech. Head of the Quantitative Trading Group at Maple Securities U.S.A. Inc., Brooke Allen also explains how to find hidden talent in a dysfunctional job market.

Once you’ve got a team, you need to direct them. A recent AAAS/Science Custom Publishing Office special feature describes how some PIs are mastering the "human elements" of running a lab. And while most scientists perpetuate the management style of their mentors, for good or bad, professional training can help you break that cycle, freelance science writer Karyn Hede writes in "Managing Scientists.”

But there are other ways to learn. Robert Austin, who was then an associate professor at Harvard Business School, describes the current thinking on how to manage knowledge workers and how these principles apply to a laboratory setting. Another Austin—Science Careers editor Jim—gives pointers on how to help your lab work at peak efficiency in "Managing Knowledge Workers: Rules for Absolute Beginners.” Also, in "Perspective: On Motivation," Jim discusses several ways of motivating employees and how they affect creativity. Kathy Barker offers further guidance on building and motivating a team in "Leadership on the Mountain; Lessons for the Lab.”

Mentoring is a big part of running a team. Today, PIs applying for funds often are required to document the mentoring they give postdocs, writes Taken for Granted columnist Beryl Lieff Benderly. Truly productive PIs generate not just a steady stream of significant research papers but also a steady stream of postdocs who are ready to make significant contributions after leaving the lab, Benderly reports in "Mentoring and PI Productivity.” You'll find much more about mentoring in "Content Collection: Mentoring Advice.”

Scientists are people—special people, but people nonetheless—so difficult personal situations can arise. Here, here, and here, experts offer advice on how to manage conflict in the lab. Our Mind Matters expert also offers some advice on how to deal with a colleague who is struggling noticeably due to personal problems, in "Mind Matters: Troubled Colleagues.”

Even as a group leader, it’s good to step back every now and then. The authors of the book Lab Dynamics, Carl M. Cohen and Suzanne L. Cohen, recommend periodically "going to the balcony"—mentally stepping out of the fray and watching what you are doing—as a way of anticipating problems with people. (The second edition of their book has just been released by CSHL Press.) It could also be that your team is not performing well, with members of your staff not taking initiative or meeting their responsibilities, which would require that you take a hard look at your own management style, write the Lab Dynamics authors.

Here’s more advice on developing leadership skills and charisma.


Project management expert Stanley E. Portny—author of Project Management for Dummies—and Jim Austin give tips in "Project Management for Scientists" and "Project Management in an Uncertain Environment." Robert Austin also explains in "Project Management and Discovery" how adaptive management models can allow for a more dynamic approach than the traditional sequential project approach. Finally, Rich Price passes along lessons he learned about project management during a University of California, San Francisco Postdoctoral Scholars Association seminar.

Of course, the ability of people to carry out their projects efficiently will depend on the conditions you create in the laboratory. Organizing physical space in your lab is important and deserves due consideration, writes Jim Austin in "Toolkit: Designing Your Laboratory."


Your laboratory is just like any entrepreneurial endeavor: It must pay the rent and establish a sustainable revenue stream, writes Michael McClure, who when he wrote the article was chief at the Division of Extramural Research and Training at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Freelance science writer Siri Carpenter provides further advice on how researchers need financial knowledge and a businesslike attitude to be successful in "Toward a Philosophy of Resource Management.”

In our "Special Feature: Grant Writing for Tight Times,” we gave tips on how to make it into the winners’ list. Writer Megan T. Brown also went into the details of how to prepare the budget for your first big grant and manage it once you’ve got the funds, in "Preparing and Managing Your First Lab Budget: Finance 101 for New Investigators.” Also available on Science Careers is the National Institutes of Health R01 Toolkit, advice on how to submit your best possible NIH R01 application, a guide to National Science Foundation success, and tips from jury members on how to get a Starting Grant from the European Research Council. Kathy Barker also explained how to build a discretionary spending account, and why it’s good to have one, for example, to take to lunch a prospective postdoc that you’ve invited for interview.

But acquiring resources is only part of the story. You need to use those resources well, and this requires careful budget planning, good negotiation skills, and, ultimately, wise spending decisions, reports freelance science writer Sarah Webb. Finally, our Yours Transferredly columnist Phil Dee explains how he wised up to the intricacies of academic financial management, and of scientific sales teams in particular.

Other considerations

Lab safety and ethics are two of the most important aspects of running a lab, but too often they receive even less attention than those other basic lab-management skills. Benderly discusses U.S. efforts to improve lab-safety culture, which at many institutions is inadequate, and devise a blueprint for safety action. Carelessness can have tragic consequences for people and their families, Benderly reports here and here.

Freelance writer Tom Hollon offers tips on making your new lab safe and compliant with your institution's guidelines. Also essential is that all incoming students and postdocs undergo safety training that goes well beyond which form to fill out, writes John K. Borchardt, author of the book Career Management for Scientists and Engineers. Encourage lab members to think through their experiments with an eye toward safety before they hit the bench—and remind them often that they need to wear their safety goggles (buying fancy ones if necessary) and other lab-safety gear. It's essential to work hard to create a laboratory culture where safety is taken very seriously. Two special features, "Staying Well - Safety in the Lab” and "Pregnancy and the Lab,” offer more advice and insight on safety—the latter in a very special context.

Just as important is creating a work environment where ethics is pervasive. All researchers, and PIs in particular, should "Put Integrity High on Their To-Do List”, writes Nicholas H. Steneck, a consultant to the federal Office of Research Integrity in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Often, research integrity is about making the right choices, writes Science Careers contributing editor Elisabeth Pain. One issue in particular that is bound to come up is authorship, so it’s important that you know the ethics of how authorship should be decided and scientific authorship conventions and accountability. There's much more in our special feature on research integrity.

If you really enjoy management …

Then you may want to consider a career in research management and administration. Tooling Up columnist David Jensen explains how to assess whether you’re management material for industry. And in “Tooling Up: The ABCs of Transitioning to Leadership,” he offers advice on making the leap to a management position in industry.

Project managers may work in biotech companies, pharma companies, and contract research organizations, among many other places. Whatever the setting, experience is important, says Meenakshi Kashyap, a former biotechnology scientist at an IT and bioinformatics consulting and outsourcing company.

A person with an interest in this kind of career could also become a technical manager, or go for a management consulting career, seeking a job with a company like McKinsey & Co., for example. Another avenue for management work is professional societies and funding bodies, where program officers and directors oversee research portfolios. Or—as Kerstin Nyberg explains—running one of the collaboration programs funded by the European Commission.

Such careers may require extra training, such as an MBA degree. Andrew Hagan shared his experience pursuing an international MBA program for scientists and engineers at the College of Engineers in Paris. Similar programs also exist at several U.S. institutions.

There is a lot more for you in our archives. A search for “management” yields around 1240 results, "project management” 790, "budget” 710, "financial planning” 450, "hire” 1095, "ethics” 260, "leadership” 420, and "lab safety” 190.

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