Tips for Running a Successful Research Laboratory
Scientific discovery depends on research. Laboratories have a lot of moving parts, including people, equipment, funding, reporting, and the freedom to explore. Lab directors assuming this responsibility benefit from these tips for running a successful research laboratory.
Select the Right Team
One bad apple really can spoil the whole bunch. It’s better to hire an adequate researcher with a lovely, supportive personality than you a cranky, self-involved genius. Toxic people create toxic interpersonal environments, and the unhappiness they generate all around them can bring your studies to a screeching halt.
Support a Culture of Curiosity
Science is all about asking questions and chasing theories, many of which may lead to dead ends, but eventually result in discoveries along the way. Disproving a theory is as important as proving one, and accidentally discovering a novel phenomenon or previously unknown but useful material characteristic makes the wild goose chase worthwhile. As a lab director, you may find yourself mired in reporting requirements and short-term expectations, but try to protect your team from bureaucracy. Make sure they feel free to take the time they need to produce results.
Don’t let curiosity kill your cats, though—establish and enforce working hours and don’t let students or veterans show off by flaunting their ability to work in the lab around the clock. Keep an eye on gifted proteges who are subject to “zoning in” so intently that they forget it’s quitting time for the day. Great minds need rest and rejuvenation. Exhaustion breeds mistakes and carelessness, which is a losing game for everyone.
Maintain Honesty and Integrity
Be honest and accountable. Don’t take credit for other’s work. If you make a mistake, own up and start over, if you must. Just don’t try to cover up errors or blame others. You are sure to be discovered, and your team will lose respect for you.
Allow TAs to mingle with titans and novices to learn from Nobel winners. Science can be a great equalizer, and students must feel free to ask questions and learn from more experienced—including decorated and famous—researchers.
Offer Training and Be Vigilant About Standards
If you look into areas that are subject to international standards and frequent innovations in lab procedures, or if you work with hazardous or controlled substances, keeping up with regulations is critical. This is particularly true of safety regulations. Make sure equipment meets standards and is properly calibrated. You want to generate trusted results, so offer your team continuing education and training in how to maintain or exceed expected standards. Allowing standards to slip looks sloppy and sends a message that you aren’t as concerned as you should be about your team’s safety and success.
Find a Mentor
An essential tip for running a successful research laboratory is to realize you don’t know everything. Step out of your lab’s boundaries and find a mentor above your level to provide guidance and perspective. Getting a higher-altitude picture of your lab operation and results will broaden your understanding and encourage your team.
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