Practicing the Art of Lab Management

Under most circumstances, a lab has just one lab manager (or Principal Investigator) who is its leader and spearheads its discoveries. Yet I'd like to suggest that it is in the interest of every graduate student to develop several lab management capabilities.

What are Lab Management Capabilities?

A good lab manager should have the following lab management capabilities:

  • Macro view of the projects running in the lab
  • Leadership
  • Mentoring
  • Setting goals and contingency plans
  • Allocating resources according to a project's priority

Why should a graduate student develop lab management techniques?

Whether aiming for a research position in academia or biotech industry, most positions require managerial skills. For example, one of the most difficult transitions is the move from a post-doc to a PI. Many new PIs face numerous managerial challenges and since they lack the required managerial skills, many make mistakes at the very important step of their career, the tenure track.  At the other end, the private sector can be even less tolerant of PIs lacking managerial skills. Since PhD-qualified positions within the private sector are managerial by nature, companies expect prospective candidates to have certain set of managerial skills. And maybe the most important reason to have such skills – they can improve your efficiency at the bench giving you more time to do other things.

Practicing lab management when you're not the boss

Yeah, it is kind of a problem to tell your PI "why don't you stay at home for a week" so you can practice full fledged lab management. Yet, the really useful transferable skills can be practiced when your PI is in the office and include communication & leadership, independent decision making and efficient project management.  

Communication & Leadership

This part is maybe the most difficult one to master. People are diverse and not all are nice or collaborative by nature. Engaging with lab mates or undergrads to help you accomplish your goals can advance your research farther than you can reach by yourself. These lab mates can be summer-time undergrads, the lab technician and even your lab manager. In many cases, you need only to ask or discuss a problem or a challenge to get the assistance that is required.

Independent Decision Making

This is a key skill for any graduate who plans to be a manager. Since decision making requires sufficient knowledge, confidence and experience, training yourself in the lab for autonomous decision making will make your life much easier down the road when you head your own lab or a research team.

Efficient Project Management

As "head" of your PhD projects, you're the one that manages most aspects of your project and acts as the main figure that executes the required tasks/experiments. Acting as a project manager, you should first start with stating the goal of the project and then proceed to outline the objectives, constraints (time, money, manpower) and your assumptions (considering all the unknown factors of the project). You're also the main technician and thus should act in an efficient manner to save time and other resources.

Not only will acting in the above manner  push your research forward, you will also acquire transferable skills that will be required in almost any other position that you should hold.