Being a good lab

We aim to make the Ioannou research group a nurturing and supportive environment that allows its members to reach their full potential, with ‘potential’ being unique to each individual. This applies from undergraduate students who do 10 week projects with us to senior postdocs who then go on to establish their own research groups (see our current and previous group members here). I’ve had a few low periods in my research career from my PhD to now when I wasn’t supported and guided by mentors as I should have been (although I didn’t realise it at the time), and this is something I don’t want members of the research group to go through.

The rest of the page details how the group works to facilitate a healthy working environment that group members are hopefully happy to be part of. For conciseness I’ve focused on the stuff that is likely to vary from lab to lab, and I have not included things which should be common to every workplace, such as welcoming diversity and not tolerating harassment and prejudice. But first, our priorities (in order):

  1. Wellbeing of lab members

  2. Integrity of the science we publish

  3. Career progression of lab members

  4. Productivity: papers, grants, conference presentations

Although research can sometimes seem entirely focused on papers and grants, I think most would agree there are more important things in both academia and life more generally. Of course, the things listed 1 to 4 above are usually (and definitely should) be complementary.

Flexibility in working: I take a flexible approach to how my research group members work, from those who want to be in the lab or office only 9-5, 5 days a week, to those who would rather work from home and at times that suit them best. Due to caring commitments I work variable hours and work at home quite a lot (especially for teaching preparation, analysing data, writing, and reading and providing feedback on others’ writing), and my group members can work where and when it maximises their potential and minimises their levels of stress. Our experiments do sometimes require a rigid schedule (for example, this often happens when subjects are repeatedly tested), but other experiments do not require this and running trials can be done on an ad hoc basis. Projects can be tailored to individuals’ preferences or constraints in how they work. Practically, on-hand support from technical and administrative staff is only available during working hours, but this has not yet been a problem for lab members working out of hours.
I do not expect group members to work evenings, weekends or holidays. I often do this (sometimes to make up time lost during the week when I should have been working…), and will send emails during these times, but there’s no expectation that anyone else will be working, including replying to emails, outside normal working hours.

Independence: Setting their own schedule is part of my broader approach to independence for my lab members. I welcome and encourage independence from them, but also acknowledge the desired level of independence varies between individuals and often correlates with career stage. For example, on average I’d expect postdocs to be more independent than PhD students. This can also be subject to practical limitations, like projects that have to be completed in a short time scale require closer supervision and allows for less independence. Linked to encouraging independence, the lab is not run in a ‘top-down’ hierarchical manner; lab members are more like collaborators.

Ownership: To avoid uncertainty and future disagreements about authorship of published work, I assign projects to individuals. While joint first (or even last) authorship is increasingly used to resolve cases where multiple individuals should be in the important first (or last) author positions, this is not viewed as valuable as a truly first authored paper for an early career researcher, so avoiding this with a bit of planning and foresight is favourable. I think it is also more productive and rewarding for individuals to take the lead and responsibility for completing a study, including managing collaborators who provide support. In fact, this is an essential skill that becomes more important as individuals progress through their research career, and is an example of allowing individuals to work independently, and that group members are more like collaborators than employees.

Mentoring: Some of what happens in academia is behind the scenes and not widely known or discussed. For example, from experience I know of flexibility in ‘rules’ within our department that appear rigid to a PhD student, and it’s only through mentoring of lab members that they can learn such subtleties. Similarly, guidance on which grants to apply for, and how to prepare such bids, requires a view of the bigger picture and experience with preparing these proposals that early career researchers are unlikely to have, or be able to find via other sources such as online (Twitter is a good source for this though, but time consuming if you don’t enjoy it).
Mentoring happens in a variety of ways. At all stages (undergraduate, postgraduate and postdoc/fellow; even I have to do it annually with a more senior member of staff), there are formal reviews that are required to take place, to make sure progress is on track and any required training is highlighted and provided. But really these are just a safeguard, as I have frequent meetings with group members to find solutions to problems, discuss and plan next steps, and chat about potential opportunities available both for research and career/personal development (training, attending conferences, etc.). The frequency of these meetings depends on the individual and also what they are currently working on; meetings tend to be more frequent while experiments are being set up and data is being analysed, and less so when writing is being done. There’s also plenty of communication over email, where I might spot a paper/new method/training course/funding source/job opportunity relevant to a lab member, or where they ask for advice.

Rapid feedback: Although I’m not in my office 9-5, 5 days a week, I try to respond to emails quickly, usually within days. I also like to provide feedback as soon as possible when I’ve been sent a piece of writing (e.g. paper or grant application) or data to analyse. I think this is more productive and satisfying for the recipient as they receive comments when the work is still fresh in their mind. And I’m usually curious to see the next iteration of a paper or get my teeth into some data.

These thoughts, and the idea for this page, are influenced by this excellent essay: Maestre, F. T. (2019). Ten simple rules towards healthier research labs. PLOS Computational Biology, 15(4), e1006914.