Moderator: Babak Momeni, Assistant Professor, Boston College and member of the eLife early-career advisory group.
Speakers: Lilach Sheiner, Royal Society of Edinburgh Personal Research Fellow, Wellcome Centre for Molecular Parasitology, University of Glasgow; Scott Dixon, Assistant Professor, Stanford University; Christopher Hammell, Associate Professor, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
Becoming a group leader comes with many new responsibilities - coming up with new research directions, managing lab members, applying for funding, forming collaborations and many other things. These can initially seem overwhelming, but there are ways to lighten the load:
“I find that being organized, even to the point of being obsessively organized, is the way to stay sane,” says Babak Momeni, who has been leading a lab for two years. Tips for getting organized include having a shared lab calendar and keeping data in a shared drive. Lilach Sheiner follows some advice that was given to her when she started her lab: identify your productive hours, your less productive hours and your not-at-all productive hours, and then schedule the tasks you have to do so as to take the most advantage of your time.
Listen to advice, but be selective
Don’t be afraid to ask for help – people generally enjoy helping others. In fact, you are likely to be offered so much advice from a wide range of people – from your postdoc mentor to people that you pass in the hall – that you may find yourself bewildered by the different tips offered to you. To overcome this, Chris Hammell recommends that you associate yourself with one person in your institution and “just stick with them”, using him or her as your primary source of advice. Your institution may also be able to help: “if there is a mentorship scheme, join it” says Lilach Sheiner.
Be the boss – you’re setting the lab culture
Scott Dixon has found that “as a supervisor or a PI, establishing the culture of your lab is your main responsibility”. You need to implement the systems that will make your lab run smoothly and in the way that you think is best, and you need to be vigilant to make sure that the members of your lab understand and follow those processes. This might mean that you have to change your behaviour. In retrospect, Chris Hammell thinks that he acted a bit too much like a senior postdoc when he first became a group leader. Being more “boss-like” would have helped to show the members of his lab that he could be relied on to support their work and catch any mistakes.
You’ll need patience and persistence
It will take some time to get your lab up and running, and not everything will go right first time. Scott Dixon has the following advice: “be patient: when you’re starting a lab it literally is empty when you show up […] you won’t know necessarily where to find things either physically in your lab space or administratively in the new institution”. You’ll also be in a position where nothing will happen unless you take the lead on it: “you can’t expect anyone to do something for you unless you ask them.”
Take pride – this is what you’ve been working for
Your work may be tough, particularly at first, but remember: you’ve been preparing to run your own lab, and probably dreaming about it, for years. Push through the difficulties and enjoy it. In the words of Chris Hammell: “it’s an immense responsibility, but it really is fun on a daily basis”.
Take a look at our post-webinar Twitter chat with the speakers.