Choosing between “head of lab” and “independent scholar” models

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When people ask how I run my lab group, I don’t know how to respond. It boggles me because these perfectly normal questions often have assumptions baked into them, about my university, my students, and the kind of work that happens in my lab.

It’s only natural that folks might compare my “undergraduate research lab” to the template of major research institution lab, most of which also feature undergrads in substantial roles.

The way I run my research program, and the students involved, is probably different than you might imagine unless you’ve spent a bunch of time at an underfunded regional state university like mine. Continue reading

Lab meetings: the publication process

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My lab meeting last week got totally derailed. In a good way.

One of my students mentioned the manuscript that she’s working on, and from all erupted a series of questions and questions about the publication process. Everyone wanted to know so much about that, we mostly ditched our original plans (to discuss the design of an experiment for the summer).

The social subtleties of how a paper gets published are entirely foreign to undergrads. Moreover, the basic mechanics of the process are also nothing of which they’re aware.

The meeting turned into a long clinic/tutorial about how the process goes. If I knew better, I would have been prepared with examples of cover letters, reviews, rejections, responses, and revisions.

Actually, I liked the way we went about it as an ad hoc conversation. I just answered their questions as they came in, rather than having prepared a little lesson about it. How do you pick a journal? How does an editor find reviewers? You mean they can just reject you without getting reviews? How often have you gotten rejected? How much do you get paid? You have to *pay* to publish? How much do you review? What happens when you say no? How long does it take for a paper to be published once you submit it? Can you submit to more than one at a time? What do you do when the reviewers don’t agree with one another? What does the university say when you publish a paper?

It’s important for my undergrads to be familiar with the how-we-do-things-on-a-daily-basis part of academia. They’ll be a lot more savvy as they gain more exposure and will be able to understand doctoral students, when they hang out and as they’re applying to grad school.

I’ve had this kind of conversation, informally, with students more times than I can remember. Little things get explained here and there, now and then. Lab meetings would be a good time to make this more formalized. There was a good discussion in an earlier post about what exactly we do and don’t do in lab meetings. So, here’s one thing you can dedicate a whole lab meeting to – the forensic analysis of the publication cycle of a couple manuscripts, explaining all the choices along the way.

My students are still surprised over the concept that it sometimes takes more work to publish a paper than it takes to collect the data, and even more surprised (or dismayed, perhaps) that it can take far longer to do so as well.

That’s a lesson that we need to reinforce, that much of science is about writing.

What do you do in lab meetings?

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When your research lab is comprised of undergraduates, what do you do in lab meetings?

I remember what lab meetings were like in grad school and as a postdoc. Everybody would give a quick progress report. Then the agenda would include a talk in preparation for a seminar or meeting, or everyone would chime in edits and comments on a manuscript in development. A new idea might get fleshed out, or there might be a discussion of a particularly important or relevant paper that had just come out. In addition to witty banter, there’d be a sophisticated exchange of ideas, a fair number of well-placed skeptical challenges, and sense of movement.

When the lab is composed of undergraduates, I don’t think lab meetings don’t happen this way. (Though, in my lab, when we meet we might have witty banter).

At least in my experience, convening together a bunch of undergraduates will not fulfill many of the possible functions of a research lab meeting. The meeting can be used to cement the bonds of the group, disseminate information to the lab, and (somewhat) as a journal club.

Lots of things won’t work in an undergrad lab meeting. The group can edit manuscripts for a variety of things, but it’s not the most productive venue for this task. If a student in the lab is prepping a talk for a meeting, they can present it to the group once it’s perfected, however I would be skeptical that fellow students would offer the best advice, because they’re not adequately familiar with the genre. They could communicate updates on their work, but the amount of progress that an undergrad makes from week to week is scant during the academic year, as they are taking classes and such, and if they have substantial questions about their research then they are best being advised in a personal conversation with you.

When we do journal club articles, no matter how I try, it devolves into a question-and-answer session with me. They ask me about the statistics, or how a certain method works, or why the question was picked, and if a conclusion is warranted. Usually these are the kind of things would get discussed as a group. When I get questions I punt them back to the group, and it all gets bounced back to me. I could, and fairly so, see this as a validation that I haven’t encouraged (or required) enough independence or confidence on their part. On the other hand, there isn’t any reasonable starting place for their specific questions other than to just answer them. The articles that I pick out are very close to what we do in the lab, for the most part, but they’re still not accessible enough. I could try to pick out more for-the-public kind of papers, but they wouldn’t be as germane.

You could use lab meetings as a method to develop your students’ insight and experience as a member of a lab and as a scientist. This meeting, though, won’t serve the otherwise primary function of normal lab meetings: to advance the work of the lab.

These lab meetings won’t get papers written more quickly, or result in insights for the next grant, or help students work out methodological or analytical problems. Those are things that you have to do on your own. The contributions of other students would probably slow things down rather than speed them up.

For these reasons, I don’t often hold lab meetings. Most semesters, I don’t have a critical mass of motivated and productive students to get a workable meeting together. Heck, every semester, scheduling a regular meeting can be hard because students are often in class at different times, or have other things in the way. The greatest benefit of the meeting is that I enjoy the company of my students as people, because overall they’re sophisticated and charming and with some, I look forward to the day that a power relationship is gone so that we can be friends.

I have had meetings for the last year, because I have a particularly top-notch set of students at the moment who all get along together well and who all work hard and effectively. I imagine that, as turnover happens in the next year, these meetings will fall apart, as they have in the past.

The best use of the meetings, I’ve found, is to keep the students accountable for getting a job done. If they need to present to the group a summary of their findings, then they’ll feel more pressure to have results on time. If they have an introduction or methods section that needs to be edited by the whole group, it’ll show up in better shape than if they just wrote it for me.

But, in all, I like to focus working with my students individually on their projects, because discussing them with a group is just awkward. The situation is different when we are in the field. As a field ecologist, nearly all of our data comes in while working far away. We are very close to one another by spending time in the field, lab, meals and often sharing housing. When we’re doing an experiment, we have to intentionally sit and meet on a daily basis to ensure data quality, adequate progress, and to adjust for the inevitable and numerous unanticipated difficulties. But in the lab, during the academic year, such little happens on a week-to-week basis that a meeting seems silly.

I suspect that the usefulness of a meeting will vary with the nature of the work that happens in the lab, and the cycle of activity. If students are getting paid to work in the lab during the year (I don’t have that kind of funding), then maybe the situation would be different. If we had fancy equipment in the lab that we needed to maintain or colonies of animals to keep tabs on, that would be different too. Do the benefits of the meetings overcome the costs of taking the time out each week to plan a meeting and make it happen?