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Careers Café

Big Benefits of Big Labs


Last week, David Smith wrote an engaging article about the big benefits of working in a small lab, from the perspective of his experience as a PhD student. That got me thinking. Just for fun, and in the spirit of academic banter, I thought that this week, I’d write about how lab size affects us as professors – and I will also touch on the fact that sometimes, there are big benefits of working with big labs.

Many of us are regularly bombarded by applications from students seeking graduate positions. Deciding whether to say yes or no to supervising students has many implications. Ultimately, we are usually subconsciously deciding whether the time the student will take up in terms of supervision is going to outweigh the benefits of the time that they will spend working on problems we are interested in. Students generally take longer to accomplish tasks than a professor would take; however, they may still save some of the professor’s time, thereby contributing to lab-scale productivity. Further, the student will be gaining both an education and experience by learning and completing tasks under the supervision of a skilled and knowledgeable supervisor, suggesting that the completion of a project with a student involved has a greater pay-off than completion of the same project by the professor alone. In moments when I wonder whether my research is really making a difference to our society and its ecosystems, I hold onto the fact that at least I’m sure that I can make a positive difference to the lives of the individual students that I supervise.

There are some economies of scale in lab size. Students can sometimes share equipment, infrastructure, or lab space. Sending 5 students to a conference in a rental or fleet vehicle might cost the same as a single plane ticket. Having two or more students on a field project can increase field safety, morale, and create an off-site support system for students. It may take no longer to teach 3 people how to sample vegetation than it takes to teach one person. Further, students within a lab can help each other learn computer and statistics programs, and, quite frankly, students are often better at using software than their professors. Plus, a big lab means having enough people around to throw a good party.

On the other hand, every additional student means one more proposal to review and edit, one more annual meeting, numerous drafts of one more thesis and perhaps several publications, and lots of interim meetings and workshops. It also means more responsibility. As such, it would seem to be immoral to take on students if you cannot commit to returning manuscripts in a reasonable time-frame – a maximum of 2-3 weeks is considered acceptable by the Faculty of Graduate Studies at our university. It also seems reasonable for students to expect that their supervisors will be present at the university the majority of the time.

Ultimately, the trade-off between additional supervision required by new students, and the contribution that they will hopefully make to scientific knowledge, and sometimes your publication list (co-authored, of course), depends on how many other students you have, whether you can afford the additional research, and the quality of the proposed student… which is sometimes difficult to tell ahead of time.

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  1. Joshua / March 22, 2013 at 09:05

    I appreciate this post that illustrates the pros/cons from a supervisor’s perspective. I’m a PhD student in a big lab and I think the two main benefits I’ve seen are:
    – senior students are given more responsibility in training junior students, which means that junior students benefit from the best-practices established by the senior students, and senior students get a taste of mentorship and supervision
    – more peers to co-review documents, which brings them to a higher level before the supervisor has to read it. My group does this semi-formally through a writing club.

    Having worked in a group of 1 graduate student and a group of >15, I definitely prefer the latter.

  2. SC / March 22, 2013 at 16:23

    In my field (biomedical) the best graduate experience tends to come from small-to-medium sized labs while bigger labs are preferred for postdoctoral training.
    It is not unusual for a newbie student to feel ‘a bit lost’ in a 15+ lab. On the other hand, I see nothing wrong with being a grad student in a small new lab with an enthusiastic newly-minted PI!
    Just my perspective 🙂

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