For many young PIs being a head of a research lab is much like being the CEO of a small start-up company. When comparing the two entities the parameters are strikingly similar: both are composed of a small team of people working on a project or two, complementing one another, working on a limited budget/start-up money and have a hovering deadline to deliver their product. Lab-wise, the products are publications, high as possible, as much as possible. The major difference between the two entities stems from the manager's association with the entity. In most cases CEOs run the company not own it. PIs, conversely, are the lab and both can't exist without the other. This means that the PI has much to lose if he/she fails to achieve tenure track. Surprisingly, even though many young PIs are stressed to deliver, not many exercise good managerial practice (mostly due lack of experience as managers) and thus might fail while reaching for their goals. In this post I will layout some tips how to improve your team output through some managerial steps.
Working plan & assigning responsibilities
As we have discussed in previous posts (Project Management in Research), academic research does not differ from any other project that is sought for in the industry. Thus, the first step in any good project management is setting goals, milestones and a rough timeline. Each student, whether a PhD or a masters student should acquire and have a prospect of the detailed working plan he/she should reach. As PI you should guide them through the process and advise on setting correct milestone that can be reached in the time allocated. Through Labguru it is possible to both plan and build a working plan in a breeze – take our tour for an overview of the process. Also, technicians and undergraduate students should be allocated to high priority projects so it will be possible to make better advancement. Make sure that all members of the project team meet together with you once a month (at least) and are updated on the progress of the project.
Meetings & discussions
Lab work involves much troubleshooting and solving problems. Many times the same problem is confronted each time by a different student thus a discussion in a lab meeting or even a small talk over a cup of coffee can enlighten one's problem. Lab meetings can be made efficient if each time 2-3 students will present their current difficulties and ask the advice of the group. While each student will be given advice by the PI in a one-to-one meeting, sometimes novel ideas sprout from the minds of other students who tackled a similar problem. Also, make sure you allocate time for group trips or different celebrations so to make the group members know each other beyond the scope of the lab, stress and student's duties.
Feedback, feedback and more feedback
Students, whether veteran or green, need feedback. Feedback can help a student get back on track to accomplishing his/her important goals and not stagger on less important avenues or troubleshoot a problematic experiment. Feedback can also root and empower the student with more confidence, self-esteem and freedom of thinking which are so important to keep the student's motivation high. This is especially important for long-term PhD students which most probably enter a procrastination term at one part of their studies. Make use of such one-on-one meetings to get some feedback as well; you never know what you can learn from the students.
Encourage your students to review their own progress on a week/bi-weekly basis. Such a review should include questions such as "What were my plans for the last week", "what went well", "what went wrong", "what are my goals for the coming week" etc. Answering these questions (and then sitting with you and going over them) helps ensure the students are always connected to their project and have a clear grasp of where they are and what tasks they have at hand. It is also great to have these Q&A in front of the student's bench so it will focus their attention on the tasks ahead.
Do you have any additional tips for ensuring your team delivers? Please share in the comments section!