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Careers Café

The big lab


I have a confession to make. It’s a bit embarrassing. But here goes….

I have 18 graduate students.

If you’re wondering whether that’s an unusually high number for one prof, you’re right… it is. I hardly know how it happened. It was just bit by bit … I’d get a great idea for a project, and put in a proposal, and get funding for a student. Or I’d get a great idea for a project, and budget for TWO graduate students. Or a promising student with exciting ideas and a scholarship wanted to work with me. Or sometimes someone comes along and you can tell they’re a great person who just deserves a break, so how could I say no?

You get the picture. Things just kind of snowballed.

So, how’s it working out? The short answer is, great. I love working with graduate students. They are interesting, fun, and keep you on your toes. I enjoy mentoring them in developing their proposals, editing their theses and manuscripts, and hanging out with them in the lunchroom talking about the latest Lady Gaga album.

But if you’re wondering if it’s a bit, well, nuts around here … that’s true, too. Right now I have three theses and a manuscript in my inbox. Unfortunately… or fortunately… they are likely to be joined by more next week. Sometimes it does seem that I’m just constantly rotating through different student’s products.

So what have I found has worked with managing this many students?

1) The students come first
No student should ever be compromised because I’m busy. I normally schedule meetings within two or three days of a request for one, and return written work within one to two weeks. This keeps a positive relationship between myself and students, and reminds them that when I set a deadline for them, I expect it to be met, too.

2) Editing is about teaching, not writing
Instead of rewriting sections of student’s manuscripts, I give lots of recommendations, guidelines and direction… occasionally on almost every sentence… and students implement their own edits. I do some additional light editing, usually to demonstrate a different approach. If they learn how to write, later drafts and papers really do get better.

3) Follow it through to the end
The benefit to having lots of students is (or should be) lots of publications. Not all students will publish their theses, but they should realize from the beginning that they are expected to, and that is the standard they should strive for.

4) Multitasking
It doesn’t take any more time to teach 10 students how to use Microsoft Access, compared with one student. I organize lab meetings to teach basic skills and expect students who need to learn to attend it. This also creates an educated peer group so that if one student didn’t understand one component, other students are available to advise them. This leads directly into….

5) Peer mentoring
Part of the secret to making sure a large lab group like this works well is creating a respectful, helpful and interactive social culture. If one student has questions that I know can be addressed by another (often to do with methods or software use), I refer them to the other student instead of meeting with them myself. This is good for the original student, who learns the topic more deeply because they now have to teach it to someone else, and the overall social culture of the lab, as it creates a more cohesive and interactive atmosphere.

6) Ya gotta love it
This just isn’t going to work if you don’t really enjoy students. If you’re giving up evenings and weekends for them, you’ve got to do it because you enjoy teaching and mentoring.

Ultimately, the success of my lab group can be seen in their productivity, happiness, and community. They get their theses done in the right length of time for them; publication and submission rates are good, and my students hang out together for fun. This has resulted in lab camping and hiking trips; they formed a band and write rap songs about endangered species; and this year several students have devised a friendly “Big Year” competition to see as many birds as they can in 2012. It’s just a fun, respectful and creative atmosphere that in many ways has been driven and developed by the students themselves. And I just get to sit back and enjoy it!

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  1. Elizabeth Boulding / January 18, 2012 at 15:50

    Hi Nicola,
    Hello from all of your former professors at U Guelph. I thought your advice on managing 18 graduate students was really excellent and plan to use some of your tips.

  2. Nadia / February 27, 2012 at 14:41

    Hi Nicola,
    I love the values that you are communicating in this post. Although not at the same level (I am a grad student), I aim to guide my RAs in a similar way.
    One question I have is whether you ever encounter students who compete with each other within your lab, and how you deal with it if it happens. When I started as a grad student, there were only two of us, and competitiveness was the main obstacle to cooperation. Although I never experienced such a situation with my RAs, I often wonder how I could deal with such a situation if it ever happened.


    Now I’ll be on my way to find a lab like yours for a postdoc… Too bad you are not in psychology! 🙂