Careers Focus: managing a research laboratory

06 August 2019

During this year’s Annual Conference, we hosted an ‘Essential Skills’ session on managing a research laboratory. The day covered all aspects of managing a lab: project management, managing assets, health and safety and managing people. Here we give an overview of each component; to find out more, members can access the full presentations on Mi Society.

Managing projects

Managing a research lab means managing competing deadlines for many different tasks, as well as maintaining a good work-life balance. Nicola Stonehouse, Professor of Molecular Virology at the University of Leeds and Chair of the Communications Committee, outlined how leading a lab involves dealing with a multitude of functions that can lead to converging deadlines.

While the research record is often the main reason for group leaders being recruited, it was acknowledged that ‘research’ is a complex job and includes many tasks: supervising lab members, writing grant applications and managing budgets as well as overseeing the team’s work. Teaching, including lectures and marking, is a requirement of many group leaders, but also demands a lot of time to plan and evaluate modules. On top of contracted responsibilities, external responsibilities are essential for your own career development, and include participating in grant panels, reviewing, and sitting on other external committees such as the Microbiology Society’s Council. These activities can be rewarding both personally and professionally; for example, attending conferences to network can lead to new collaborations and subsequent grant applications for more funding.

But all these tasks lead to conflicting deadlines and need to be prioritised! Attendees were given a scenario reflecting a real-life demanding day in the office. They were asked to prioritise the issues needing attention as either ‘Urgent’ or ‘Important’, helping them to see how to manage competing issues realistically and reasonably and emphasising the importance of using all the tools available to get things done.

Finally, Nicola reminded attendees to ensure that time is preserved for a personal life and hobbies to keep you balanced while running a research lab.

Managing assets

The next section, ‘Managing assets’, by Nigel Brown, Emeritus Professor of Molecular Microbiology at the University of Edinburgh and former Society President, provided an overview of the different types of funding available to group leaders. Nigel focused on what makes a successful grant application: as well as high-quality research, a checklist was provided for attendees to use when writing a grant application.

As well as emphasising the responsibility to maintain resources and stay in budget, Nigel ended the session noting the importance of reporting appropriately. Different funders may have different concluding requirements, but reporting results appropriately also helps define future strategic funding decisions, as well as being a useful self-reflection exercise.

Best practices

Our penultimate section, ‘Best practices in Lab Management’, was delivered by Lindsay Murray, Health and Safety Manager at the University of Edinburgh. Lindsay provided a brief overview of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and summarised how the health and safety compliance process works, focusing on how COSHH regulations interact with other HSE regulations. The unrecognised hazard of late and lone working was covered, as well as the impact of stress on individual researchers’ health, something which is quite often overlooked. Attendees were also given some interesting case studies showing the need to plan thoroughly; for example, with scheduled maintenance of equipment to avoid unnecessary disasters in the laboratory.

Getting the most out of your team

The day concluded with Lindsay Hall, Research Leader at the Quadram Institute, outlining factors to consider when forming a research group. Lindsay introduced attendees to the process of recruiting staff and students and noted the importance of setting different expectations for individuals based on career stage and contracted work commitments. The group used questionnaires on personality and learning styles to think about how they work with different types of people.

The session ended with examples of tried and tested team activities that Lindsay used to build her team’s rapport, such as scheduled dinners and using public engagement activities to get people working together. Finally, managing a team also involves difficult conversations which produce positive outcomes when done effectively, so Lindsay took attendees through dealing with ‘unspoken thoughts and feelings’ vs ‘what we actually say and do’, and provided tips to prepare for difficult conversations.

There is so much to consider when managing a research lab and these are general themes illustrated by the personal examples of some of our members. Establishing a good work-life balance, planning for incoming funding, establishing routine health and safety practices and developing nuanced ways of working with team members are all essential parts to start with to successfully lead your research laboratory.

Grant application checklist

  1. Is the case for support clearly written?
  2. Has an expert read it?
  3. Has someone who doesn’t know the area in detail read it?
  4. Have you fully justified the resource required?
  5. Have you indicated where your application matches the funders priorities?

Image: I. Atherton.