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The Black Hole

Moving labs – so many variables, so little time

Starting early and being ruthless about time management are just a few pieces of advice I wish I had been given at the start of this process.


As many of our readers know already, I have made the decision to move our research lab from Cambridge to York. With the move so close now, the excitement (and the fear) is palpable and the amount of gratitude I have for people helping on both sides of the move is enormous. A number of colleagues have been asking about the process and whether there were any “lessons” learned along the way, so I thought it useful to finally put pen to paper on the subject – although I suspect there will be more once we’re on the other side of the move!

Start early – I left a substantial amount of time (nearly 12 months) for getting the move organized and I still wish I had left more. Even for a small lab, the list of things to take care of is long. It’s not so much that the workload is vast, but more that the number of players is substantial – HR, grants, and finance teams on both sides, lab people moving or staying, etc etc. Moving grants also takes time from the funder point of view – you need approval, you need to re-forecast budgets, and you are often beholden to semi-regular meetings of decision makers, so be sure to check these timelines.

Be ruthless with time management – as the move has neared, I’ve become much better at this and if I could go back I would have started as soon as I knew we were moving. I had to learn to say “no” to a lot more things (reviews for papers and grants, talks at other institutions, conference invitations, committee memberships, etc). I know that our lab’s success in the new location will be critically dependent on how well we navigate the next 12-18 months and need to ensure that projects and people are producing – the “extra” stuff needs to take a backseat sometimes.

Transition plans for people – in my case (and probably for many others who are orchestrating a lab move), some people are staying and some are coming. What is most important, is to make sure that you give people as much time as possible to come to terms with the decision. As I said in my earlier post – “Unlike when a staff member leaves a company and the project / job often continues, a group leader leaving means that the contracts and grant money leave as well – this affects many more people than just the individual leaving.” All of your people deserve a transition plan and the more time they have, the better.

Know your key resources, get them working – your lab probably has a few things that are absolutely essential to have working. For us, just about every experiment starts with isolating blood stem cells and it is critical to be confident that you are getting the right cells. Also, our laboratory sometimes uses mouse models for research and the strains of mice we use don’t exist everywhere. I started moving animals in January for a September start date and have been doing preliminary experiments on blood stem cells at York since June to ensure things work – success here means hitting the ground running in September rather than validating key assays, a very worthwhile investment! Here, I would again emphasize the gratitude I have for people in the new space, incredibly helpful for getting these things going and I am in their debt.

Recruiting ahead of time – if there is money in place to hire new people, this is a process that needs to start immediately. Learning a new HR and recruitment system, knowing about student funding programs, and getting people involved as early as possible is key. This is particularly true if potential hires are a little more complicated (i.e., need a work permit) and sometimes months can be required to get things in order.

Overall, while it might seem like an incredibly dry list of things to add to your worry list, I really do wish I’d had the advice myself and hope that this will help some people sort themselves out sooner rather than later. If any of our readers are planning a move and would like to chat, I’m always reachable by email and happy to discuss. Stay tuned for the post-move update!

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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