Texas Tech University
Scholarly Messenger
The “Management” Part of Data Management
By Marianne Evola, Ph.D.

At the 2nd Annual Conference on Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR), Dr. Alice Young and I gave a presentation on data management. One of the last points we made was that effective data management requires effective management of people. Although I had time to make the case that science courses do not provide critical management skills that are needed to run a research lab, I did not have time to suggest possible solutions. I dislike raising a concern without proposing a solution, so I thought I would use my column in this issue of Scholarly Messenger to provide resources and thoughts on managing a research team.

I am not attempting to provide a complete set of management skills in this brief article. Nor am I asserting that I am an expert in lab management - I’m still learning! Rather, my goal is to encourage graduate students to seek out opportunities to learn how to manage people before your career makes it necessary. Furthermore, I thought I would provide some references and guidance from my experience in managing people and research teams.

Unlike many graduate students, I had a life and career before science, in which I first learned to manage people. For several years before attending graduate school, I was a professional chef and kitchen manager in an independently owned restaurant. It was in this environment that I learned how to manage people and was mentored by an experienced and natural leader. So, when I started grad school, I brought with me a set of acquired management skills. Some of these skills were applicable but many had to be adjusted for an academic environment. Supervising a team of highly motivated undergrads who are eager to prove themselves is considerably easier than supervising a team of seasoned and cynical restaurant workers. I learned quickly that my management and communication style could be very intimidating to students and, therefore, had to change to maximize productivity. I continue to work on communication to this day, especially when it comes to correcting unwanted behavior in new trainees (“old timers” know that correction is not personal). At this point, I pride myself that most of our Texas Tech undergrad assistants remained in our Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center lab for a year or more and all left to pursue an advanced degree in their chosen field. As such, I have learned a few things about supervising a research team that may benefit graduate students with little-to-no experience managing people.

So much of what we learn in graduate school is self-taught. It is a critical part of becoming an independent thinker. However, I think new supervisors often make the mistake of forgetting the often expensive error part of learning through “trial and error.” To avoid potentially expensive errors by your team, develop some proactive management skills to increase your team’s productivity.

  1. Admit your limitations and seek training and guidance. If your mentor tells you to supervise a team of undergrad assistants, remind him/her that you have no experience managing people but will do you your best. Then look to your mentor and other resources for guidance.
  2. Do not avoid opportunities to learn to manage people. I have seen graduate students work extraordinarily long hours to do it themselves, rather than make the effort to coordinate with a team. Although dedication is commendable, you may be missing an opportunity to learn valuable lessons about managing people and how to minimize the vulnerability that can be associated with trusting your team.
  3. Once you are coordinating a team, be a visible manager while they conduct experiments, especially for new members of your team. Your presence during experiments will make you approachable for questions, enable you to catch potential errors, and promote precision work.
  4. Do not assume that undergrads know how to do something or will figure it out. Well-trained undergrads are valuable assets to your lab, but new undergrads require a lot of supervision and training. Your efforts at the start will pay off in the end.
  5. Critical rules should be addressed immediately and emphatically. Students should be educated on dangers in the lab, safety practices they must adopt, and critical mistakes/behaviors to avoid. Don’t let students make critical or dangerous mistakes out of ignorance.
  6. Put students to work ASAP. Set the stage that the lab is an environment of productivity. Undergrads WANT to work, but will quickly learn to be lazy if little is expected of them.
  7. Remember, an undergraduate’s number one priority is coursework. Expect them to disappear during midterms and finals, and plan your experiments accordingly.
  8. Expect and be receptive to lots of questions and mistakes from new students. Good students are very curious, and they are afraid they’ll make mistakes. At the outset, make your instructions clear. Do not get angry when students make mistakes, because fearful students may hide mistakes rather than report them. Do work with the student who reports a mistake to figure out, together, how to do it right next time.
  9. If a student makes the same mistakes repeatedly, either the instructions, tools, and/or training aren’t complete or the student’s abilities don’t match the work. The second possibility is tough for you and the student, but it is better to end the research relationship early and courteously than to endanger either the student, if the mistakes involve safety, or your research.
  10. Be careful of inappropriate pressure or suggesting that you want a particular research result. Most students found guilty of fabrication/falsification report pressure as the reason for their misconduct.
  11. Acknowledge accomplishments. Complimenting a student on a good job goes a long way.
  12. Attend to students taking ownership of a project and address expectations. Success on a project will increase a student’s interest and retention to the lab. However, as a student continues working on a project, they naturally take ownership of project responsibility and credit. Early in working with a student, talk about how your field assigns credit for authorship. As the project progresses, acknowledge students’ contribution and talk about expectations for credit (authorship) and responsibility.
  13. Do not be intimidated by talented students. Instead, learn from each other. If you are lucky, you will encounter students whose potentials surpass your own. These students will contribute knowledge, ideas and growth to your lab and projects. Allow students to present their ideas, and incorporate them if you decide they are appropriate. When suggestions are inappropriate, explain why. Students came to your research team to benefit from your expertise and experience - remember to maintain control of your experiments.
  14. If your lab functions with a hierarchy of authority (PI→postdocs→grad students→undergrads) the authority and responsibility of all personnel needs to be defined. Once defined, address the concerns of subordinates and support the decisions of managers within the parameters of their defined roles. Subordinates deserve respect and supervisors cannot manage without authority.
  15. Model the management style you want represented in your lab! You cannot lead with distain and sarcasm and expect subordinates to treat one another with respect.
  16. Have fun! Although students are a lot of work, it is a lot of fun watching them learn and grow. Lifelong friendships and professional connections can be made during student research. And remember, you may be going to that exceptionally talented student for a job one day.
References: For questions please contact me at: Marianne.evola@ttu.edu or (806) 834-4166.

Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.
Alice Young, associate vice president for research/research integrity, is a contributing author/editor.