Learning to Lead a Lab

Firing a member of your lab is difficult. Fortunately, it’s also rare. The first and only time cell biologist Samara Reck-Peterson had to do it, in her laboratory at Harvard University, she felt prepared. She had practiced the difficult conversation during a lab management course she’d taken in 2009, and she had a script ready. “Practicing is really the most important thing,” she says. It helped her anticipate which parts of the conversation were likely to trigger emotional responses so she could head them off in the real conversation.

Reck-Peterson is one of many aspiring and established principal investigators (PIs) who have participated in formal lab management or leadership training courses. Such courses were once rare, and they’re still not widely available. Access depends on your location and ability to pay. But if you can find one, attending such a course is well worth the effort. Most scientists who did find one say they came back with helpful people skills and a network of colleagues with whom they can share difficult situations and discuss solutions. “I think it’s a mandatory course for young PIs,” says molecular biologist Raz Zarivach of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer-Sheva, Israel, speaking of a lab management course offered by the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO)—one of two he has attended.

A growing trend?

Traditionally, trainers have come into the job from a consulting or management background, says Anne-Marie Glynn, the program manager for the European Molecular Biology Organization’s (EMBO’s) laboratory management courses. But as more scientists are exposed to formal lab management training, some discover an interest in becoming a trainer themselves, and they feel better prepared for the new activity, Glynn adds.

Becoming a trainer requires a blend of skills. It helps if you’re a scientist, familiar with the practicalities and challenges of running a laboratory. You also need good communication and interpersonal skills because they are at the core of what the courses are teaching. hfp consulting’s trainers must teach participants—mainly future and established PIs—to establish two-way communication in the lab, making their needs clear to lab members while also listening to them, Janssens says. The course puts great emphasis on empathizing with team members, balancing supervision with autonomy, and negotiating conflicts.

It also takes good communication and interpersonal skills to run the courses. Much of the training is delivered via guided conversations and group exercises, managing personalities and guiding interactions among the participants, Janssens says. Instructors also need to keep track of how each participant is doing, by observing and listening, Janssens says.

Biologist Carl M. Cohen began teaching workshops on leadership in the 1990s and has co-written a book (Lab Dynamics: Management and Leadership Skills for Scientists) and several Science Careers articles on the subject with his wife, psychologist Suzanne L. Cohen. Every workshop, Carl Cohen says, includes a person with a strong personality who could easily dominate the discussion; to be a good facilitator, you need to involve other participants.

Trainers must be prepared to tailor their teaching to varied audiences, taking a group’s specific needs and background into account, Glynn says. Courses that were originally offered to all scientists holding or anticipating a leadership or management role are now tailored to thinner slices—e.g. to senior postdocs,  specialized lab managers supporting a PI, women in leadership positions, or PIs.

Scientists, not managers

The main reason lab management and leadership training courses exist is a gap in traditional scientific training curricula, Carl Cohen says. PIs often rise to their positions based on the excellence of their research, their publication records, and the fellowships they win. Yet, they go on to become managers, needing to distribute their lab’s workload, motivate junior colleagues and defuse tensions, keep the lab on budget, and ensure that everyone is working toward common goals, among other daunting challenges, according to trainers and senior scientists Science Careers interviewed for this story.

These days, most doctoral programs and university career offices supplement scientific training with transferable skills, says Anne-Marie Glynn, program manager for EMBO courses. But to get that training you need to be “fortunate enough to work at one of these institutes”—and those programs often lack the basic financial accounting and people-management skills required of PIs, Glynn adds.

Many early-career scientists recognize the need for that extra training; feedback from young scientists prompted BWF and HHMI to design such a course in the first place. Today, early-career scientists are recognizing this need earlier in their training, Glynn says. While EMBO first developed courses for scientists who had already been appointed as research group leaders, lately more postdocs—and even doctoral students—have been signing on, Glynn says. In 2007 EMBO started offering 3-day courses for younger scientists in addition to the beefier, 4-day courses for research group leaders.

What will you get from the course?

Lab management and leadership courses range from on-campus classes organized by your university, to off-site courses delivered by consultancies with participants from a range of research institutions. Dedicated courses tend to be an immersive experience lasting between 1 and 4 days.

The range of topics varies. The 2002 and 2005 BWF/HHMI courses offered training in grant writing and collaboration, for example. But courses typically cover people skills, setting and meeting goals for the lab, and project and finance management. Carl Cohen says the most popular element of his workshops is the part on negotiations. “At the young PI level there are issues like, ‘How do I deal with my department chair who wants me to take on more responsibility than I’m ready for?’ ” This includes taking on extra teaching and committee work. During the workshops, he helps young PIs learn to balance departmental responsibilities with time spent on research. Participants also learn how to agree on an appropriate balance with department chairs and senior advisers.

One of the ways instructors teach these and other leadership skills is through role-playing. They set up scenarios that allow attendees to practice together; this is followed by discussions of how the scenarios played out. The idea is to prepare them for similar situations, which are bound to arise in their labs.


Professional and personal rewards

Those who teach lab management and still run a lab say that teaching the courses is helpful in their own labs. Janssens values in particular the interpersonal skills she picked up as an instructor. For example, she says, she used the course’s conflict-management lessons to solve an issue with colleagues regarding flexible working arrangements.

Jobs in lab management training are hard to find. While hfp consulting and EMBO are adding to their course list to meet demand, job opportunities in both Europe and the United States remain scarce. But despite the limited financial opportunities, Carl Cohen says, teaching scientific leadership has been “possibly the most gratifying thing I’ve done in my life.”

Such training proved useful for Zarivach, who says he used to push his staff too hard. Recognizing this, at his second course Zarivach asked his instructor and fellow participants how he might change his approach. They suggested that a lighter hand might stress his staff less and help them learn to work more independently. Zarivach has since begun to trust his junior colleagues more, giving them enough space to make their own mistakes while letting them know he’s around when they need help. The combination of advice from course mates and trial-and-error in the lab has worked, he says.

Another strength of the courses is that they help researchers prepare for hiring decisions, alumni say. Zarivach says he learned “to give more time for the interviewed person to talk” during job interviews and to ask unconventional questions to learn more about their personalities. Reck-Peterson, who took the BWF/HHMI course before she took an hfp course, says she learned to follow up on letters of recommendation with telephone calls to get more nuanced verbal recommendations. She also learned to adjust interviews to accommodate different personality types.

Both Zarivach and Reck-Peterson say that the networks of fellow PIs they formed during the courses continue to provide support. Zarivach now heads a forum of young scientists, some of whom have taken part in leadership courses at his university, who continue discussing lab management issues via email or over coffee. Reck-Peterson and other alumni of lab management training in the Boston area get together from time to time, too, since they trust each other and have a common approach to addressing lab issues.

Choosing a course

In choosing a lab management course—assuming you have access to more than one—important aspects to consider are the time commitment and the format. Some courses bring instructors to a university for an afternoon seminar, for example, or even for a couple of days. Zarivach did a 2-day on-campus lecture-heavy course organized by his university, followed by a 3-day EMBO course in Heidelberg, Germany. At the second course, “we could discuss more,” he says. There was enough time for all the participants to share their experiences and propose solutions.

Another consideration is whether to take such a course alongside institutional colleagues: Do you feel you can open up? Or would you be better off attending an off-campus course and building a remote support network? Because the topics discussed are often sensitive—dealing with recalcitrant colleagues, perhaps—an off-campus course allows you to speak more openly, Glynn says.

Some universities offer free training in lab management and leadership, but other courses cost money. If you are a Ph.D. student or postdoc, perhaps it can be covered by fellowships—but you may have to convince your PI to pay. You can help your case by offering to share what you learn with other group members.

If you are a PI, you can set your own priorities. “If you have a startup package, instead of buying a whatever—a microfuge—spend a few thousand dollars on [the training] instead,” Reck-Peterson recommends. “It is well worth the investment.”

First published by Science Careers: [html] [pdf].