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Communicating Expectations to Your Lab Group

Things to Think About:  Things to Think About is a new section of the ORI blog where members of the ORI staff communicate about ideas we have about the responsible conduct of research. 

Communicating Expectations to Your Lab Group

After countless years at the bench, you have landed your dream job -- running your own research group.  You got here through your own hard work.  You are proud of your achievements, but now you need to train students and trust them not only with your resources but also with your ideas.  Things are going well for the first year or so.  You are still working in the lab, so you have your hand in every project.  You are modeling ideal work practices for your students so they are meeting your expectations. 

Now you are moving into a phase of your career that is taking you out of the lab more and more.  As you withdraw from the bench, you notice that your new students are not putting out the work that you expect from them.  It doesn’t make sense to you.  Everyone knows that graduate students basically live in the lab, right? 

Do you have a problem? You may need to ask yourself some questions:

  • What are my expectations for your students?
  • Are my expectations for my students reasonable?
  • How clearly have I communicated my expectations to my students?
  • Have I listened to my students’ responses to my expectations?
  • Are my expectations in line with the expectations of other mentors in the department?
  • Do I expect my students to spend 40-60 hours a week in the lab; do I expect 100 hours?
  • Do I expect my students to work completely uninterrupted throughout the work day or do I encourage breaks throughout the day? 

Possible Approaches

Defining what your expectations are and assessing whether they are reasonable might be an important first step.  Your students are not you.  You may have gladly worked 100 hours a week during your graduate education, but your students may have different priorities and circumstances.  They may have children.  They may have health conditions that require them to rest more.  They may have service commitments that they are not willing to sacrifice.  In addition, they might have very different career goals than you did when you were a student.  A Ph.D. student who wants to continue in research after completing her degree likely will have a very different view of lab work than a student who plans to work in science communication. 

It can be difficult for a student to meet your expectations when you have not communicated them.  How you communicate your expectations is up to you, but there are several approaches, which might include:

  • You could create a new group member handbook for your students, which outlines your expectations in a clear and concise manner.  Your students can refer back to the handbook if they ever have questions.  This method also lends weight to your expectations because your students see that you’ve taken the time to write the guidelines down.  
  • Meeting with new members to let them know what you expect from them (and what they can expect from you) is another equally useful method of communicating your expectations.  One benefit of having this conversation is that the student has a chance to respond to your expectations. 

A dialogue about your expectations can help clear up any misunderstandings.  For instance, you may have told your students that you expect 80 hours a week in the lab and you have students who are having trouble meeting that goal.  They may tell you that they cannot meet that expectation because of their teaching responsibilities.  You realize that you meant to say 80 hours a week of lab and teaching combined. 

When the disconnect between your expectations and the expectations of your group members is large, it might be helpful to discuss this disconnect with other faculty in your department.  Work culture varies from institution to institution and even from department to department within the same institution.  An expectation of 80-hour weeks may be the norm for your experience but could be potentially demoralizing in a department that follows a 40-hour work week.  Knowing that expectations differ from the established culture can help you better communicate with your lab members.

If you are expecting something different from other groups in the department, explaining your reasoning to the students might bring clarity.  Are there particular demands for the project that require the extra hours? How might it affect the number of publications?  Could it lead to publications in higher-tier journals?  What are you willing to help them do to find postdoctoral employment in prestigious research groups?  These benefits may seem obvious to seasoned researchers, but new graduate students might not be able to see that far ahead.    

Let us know by commenting below how you communicate expectations to your lab group.

 

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