GOOOOOOO Labbies!!

Background info: I played a lot of sports as a youngster, but I was never a cheerleader.

One of the crazy things you have to learn to do when you start up a lab is figure out how to keep people motivated and productive. I am certainly not an expert in this area, and I'm sure that I have made some real mistakes. But, the general approach I have been using is to try to emulate some of the great mentors that I have had. Many of these were not ever my actual lab PI, but they are folks that I have talked to about mentoring and lab management or witnessed vicariously through friends that were in their lab.

So, what did I learn that I am trying to use in my own lab? Well, (obv) everyone is different, so you can't have the same mentoring relationship with all the peeps. But in general, I try to be a cheerleader. This was explicit advice from one of my most-trusted mentoring mentors. I give advice, and try to nudge folks to do what I want. But often I just try to encourage the peeps if they are having difficulty nailing down an experimental result, finishing a fellowship application, or whatever. Because sometimes doing science is hard. It can be discouraging, particularly as a new student. I have good students in my lab. They are smart and work hard. Most of the time I just have to cheer and stay out of the way. This does NOT mean that I am not critical with the folks in my lab. If you fuck up, you'll know. We have discussions on areas in which they need more work. But this is all in the realm of constructive criticism.

I was thinking about this recently because of an interesting interaction I had when I was talking to another Asst. Prof I had called to get a reference for someone that had applied to be a postdoc in my lab. This was the second person I had talked to on the phone about Dr. PD App, and everyone was very enthusiastic. But I was asking open-ended questions and trying to see if there were any red flags (or strengths/weaknesses that I should know about if s/he was in my lab). In the course of this discussion, Asst. Prof mentioned was talking about how independent Dr. PD App was and how s/he had never needed a lot of "cheerleading". This was meant as a compliment to indicate that they were very self-motivated and persistent even when shit didn't go their way. Fair enough-score 1 for Dr. PD App! What was surprising is that Asst. Prof went on to lament about how many of his students did need cheerleading and how this was one of the most exhausting and irritating parts of his new job as the head of a lab.

I totally agree that learning to manage people in the lab can be overwhelming. But..."irritating"? Not so much. I rely on the folks in my lab to be productive so that I can write papers and grants and get tenure. In return, they get an education and a chance to develop as a young scientist. Sure, I didn't have any formal management training before I moved from the bench into the office. It is a lot of work (and pressure), but it is also rewarding. I guess I didn't really mind taking on the role as lab cheerleader.

What do you think - is cheerleading is part of being a good mentor?



12 responses so far

  • Yael says:

    When I was a grad student getting ready to finish, I told a PI that I was close to that s/he was like a sports coach (I really should have said doula) to me at that point--whether s/he said "one! more! western! one! more! PCR!" or "stop doing experiments, go home and write!", I would have listened to hir; I was very frazzled and trying desperately to get things in shape for a manuscript and was in no shape to think beyond experiments for the project. And hir encouragement was very important for me to get through psyche intact and happy. I'd even do it again.

    I think beyond the cheerleading--the PI has to know what they are doing so that people will trust their cheerleading/coaching (somehow I always felt that when my PI said that something is going to be ok/doable, it really was going to be fine), otherwise it's a lot of hot air.

    • gerty-z says:

      I can see how trust would be important, though I think that at some point as a student you shouldn't be relying on trust any more. Right now I only have new students, and they seem to trust me a lot. Maybe too much. I'm sort of looking forward to the day* when they don't act like the trust me so much.

      *I'm sure that I'll be totally frustrated when this actually happens 🙂

      • Yael says:

        I wasn't referring to "trust" so much as in data, but say, trusting the PI to know what s/he is doing in terms of knowing what is a publishable unit, what is sufficient to graduate with, all of which are extremely variable and institution/committee dependent (I didn't know who the asshats were and who to avoid for instance). Also--many of us did go through this "I will NEVER GRADUATE please let me publish a minimal publishable unit and leave with MPhil" phase and it was nice to have a PI who had graduated students ask, "you can leave if you want, but why do you want to publish a throwaway paper when you can do better?". Hir students mostly went to their top pick of industry jobs/postdocs (and none quit in the middle). I know some other students whose advisors leave them in the lurch, those students are always looking over their shoulder and it is not pretty.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    There are many things that could be called "irritating" as a PI, but encouraging and supporting your people is not one IMO. Now if you have to babysit someone in the lab, that is exhausting, but if your people are getting shit done how can it be annoying to help them?

  • Dr Becca says:

    Absolutely cheerleading is an important part of being a good mentor. Reward and validation are so infrequent in this gig, having someone in a position of authority tell you you're doing a good job can really help with motivation.

    My post-doc mentor was a super cheerleader, although sometimes I wished he'd have done a little less cheerleading and a little more constructive criticism. I think for each person, it's going to be a matter of finding the right balance.

  • alethea says:

    Would that they taught cheerleading in PI-school (if only there were such a thing)! My PI is really nice, but not a motivator. He asks questions, will squint at data with us students, but is rarely an encourager beyond a "nice job" if we win poster competitions and taking the lab out to lunch when we publish papers. It would be really great to get a little more day-to-day encouragement. Even though I'm pretty good at being a self-starter, 5 years of slogging it out is wearing.

  • I don't know where I would be without my PI's awesome cheerleading. EVERY time I sit down to show her my images, she comments on how well done and amazing they look. EVERY time I"m surprised and happy about it. It makes me feel good. She's go on to tell me where things have holes and be an awesome critic but she NEVER fails to tell us when you're doing well. It really really helps with the confidence.

  • yellowfish says:

    I have a friend who read a bunch of books about how to be a sports coach when he was starting up his lab and starting to get grad students... I thought it sounded like a great idea. My own primary mentors were great but not particularly cheer-leader like, but that's why it's nice to have a range of people as mentors or more senior collaborators- you can get something different from everyone.

  • Dr. O says:

    My grad PI, who is a fantastic mentor (well-regarded as such by those from and not from hir lab), mentioned before that hir main fault was not being enough of a cheerleader with hir trainees. I always thought this statement rather odd, since I felt I got more than enough support from hir. But I was also a self-motivated, independent worker who just didn't need as much cheerleading as others did. This is a very good thing to keep in mind as I start my own lab (eek!); thanks for the post. 🙂

  • gerty-z says:

    I might be making a mistake in my limited experience, but I totally agree with Dr. Becca, alethia, Scientist Mother and yellowfish. I think that cheerleading (maybe coaching is better?) is a really important part of helping n00bs build up the confidence they need to be succesful. And it is hard, because most of us that are starting up our own lab never needed that much external motivation. So, like Dr. O, this can seem a little strange. But it is one of the more fun parts of this job. When you see your students stand up and give a talk about their project-and totally nail it-it is freaking AWESOME!

  • PinkGlitteryBrain says:

    I've been a grad student for a couple years now and from what I've seen one difference between a good PI and a great one is the ability to recognize that their students aren't mini-thems. Odds are they have always had or learned the internal motivation to work long hard hours with little validation.
    I think a great PI recognizes when a student doesn't have the same baseline setting and adjusts the mentorship to fit the students needs. Is it more work? Definitely. But then again being great usually is.

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