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Why some professors welcome new lab members with clear expectations—in writing

In 2008, Steven Cooke experienced an ordeal he wouldn’t wish on any lab head. One of his Ph.D. students plagiarized half of his dissertation proposal, giving Cooke—a professor of biology at Carleton University in Ottawa—no choice but to kick him out of the lab.

The situation made Cooke reflect on what he expected of his students, as well as what they should expect of him. Until that point, he’d always sat down with incoming graduate students, undergrads, and postdocs to talk about how his lab group operates and to orient them to pertinent rules and regulations. “But it was off the cuff,” he says. “So probably every time it was different, and I would miss things.”

He still has those meetings. But now Cooke uses a two-page “lab member­–professor contract” that he wrote in the aftermath of the plagiarism incident as a sort of blueprint to help him walk through everything he wants to discuss in the 2-hour sessions—ethics, safety, data backups, communication, and a host of other expectations. He also emails the document to his entire lab group every 4 months to serve as a reminder.

“There are university policies for most of the things that are in that document,” he says. “But it’s in legalese and it’s not light reading.” In Cooke’s view, it’s much more effective to have a “short and punchy” document and go through it point by point, sharing examples of things that have gone wrong in the past. “Most of [the lab expectations], unfortunately, are based on experience; they aren’t just theoretical,” he says. “We’ve misstepped in pretty much every one.”

Cooke is part of a wave of professors who have started to onboard new group members using a document outlining lab expectations. “I think it’s becoming more and more common,” says Jen Heemstra, an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University in Atlanta who started a manual for incoming members to her lab 2 years ago. Many departments lack clear guidelines for graduate students—for example, related to sick days and vacation time—and a lot of conflict in academia stems from unclear expectations, she says. So, laying out explicit guidelines is one way to help labs run more smoothly.

On the same page

“For me it was kind of out of self-preservation; it’s so much work when someone joins [the lab],” Heemstra says. Her manual has a section called “I’ve just joined!  Where’s my desk?” which outlines who is in charge of assigning bench and desk space, where new trainees can go to get lab keys, and how they can get added to the group Google calendar, among other things. “It’s so unpleasant to have to rattle through all this stuff and it’s really overwhelming for the person joining,” Heemstra says. Having a document to send them instead “has really just been a relief.”

Heemstra enlisted her lab group to help write the manual. “You can have a policy manual, but if people aren’t bought into it then it might as well not exist,” Heemstra says. So, “we built it by consensus.” First, they brainstormed all the things they needed a policy on—who orders gloves, what lab equipment is for general use, and so on. Then, once they decided what each policy should be, they broke into groups to write each section. They treat the manual—which is currently 11 pages long—as a “living document,” updating it annually to axe information that isn’t helpful and add sections as new ideas arise.

Last year, for example, Heemstra wrote a section about well-being, which includes this statement: “If you are not feeling well, either physically or mentally, take the time off you need to seek out help and take care of yourself.” That section is particularly important to Heemstra, who struggled with depression during grad school and thinks academics should be more open about discussing mental health issues. “It’s still somewhat of a taboo topic in Ph.D. programs because, sadly, there are some advisers out there who think, ‘Well, if you struggle with mental health issues then you’re not fit for graduate school,’” she says. “My worst nightmare is that someone doesn’t go and get the help they need because they think that I would be upset about it or that that’s not allowed.”

Moin Syed, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, starts his 7-page lab document—which he calls his “Graduate Student Advising Statement”—with another crucial but sometimes difficult topic: career paths. The document clearly articulates that Syed will support his trainees in whatever path they choose. “We all know that the vast majority of students do not go on to research-intensive faculty careers,” he says. “It’s pretty ridiculous that faculty, I think, tend to deny [that] reality.”

Elsewhere in the document, Syed writes what his work schedule generally looks like—weekdays 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., weekends off—and he advises his students to figure out a schedule that works for them, ensuring that they don’t neglect their personal lives. “People who spend all their time on work activities generally tend to be less productive over the long term, less creative in their work, and frankly less fun as colleagues,” it reads.

Syed, Cooke, and Heemstra are all glad they set aside time to create their onboarding documents. “I think it creates an opportunity for ongoing open dialogue about what we expect from each other,” Cooke says. Syed has also found that having a document can help with recruitment. He sent his advising statement to two prospective grad students earlier this year. “I would hope that it really opened the door to say, ‘OK, yes, you can talk to him about these things,’” says Syed. Both are starting in his lab this fall.

Getting started

Some professors may be hesitant to create their own lab document because they think, “Man, this is a really daunting task,” Syed says. “But there are a lot of these already out there.” For example, his document is posted online and he’s happy for anyone to use it, as long as they properly attribute him and two faculty members whose writing inspired him. Heemstra has also posted her section about well-being online.

Some topics could apply to any lab group, such as expectations about working collegially with other lab members, but professors also need to consider addressing issues specific to their lab’s research. For example, Heemstra—a chemist—devotes space to lab notebooks, whereas Cooke—a fish biologist—has multiple sections that discuss the importance of field safety and what he considers to be responsible conduct in the field. “We’ve had a number of students sexually assaulted now, all off campus and at field sites by people that are outside of the lab,” Cooke says. “You can’t put your students in a bubble,” but you can make it clear to them that you’ll do whatever you can to provide them with a safe workplace and that they have the authority to spend money to get themselves out of a bad situation, he adds.

Documents like these have the potential to relieve “an enormous amount of anxiety” for trainees, Syed says, and he hopes more faculty members will follow the trend. “If we have the tools and the ability to make the Ph.D. and graduate school experience process smoother for students, why don’t we do that?”

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