The key to a happy lab life is in the manual

A well-crafted set of guidelines and advice can save time, reassure trainees and promote a positive lab culture, argues Mariam Aly.
Mariam Aly
Taken from
A year and a half ago, as I was preparing to launch my own laboratory studying cognition at Columbia University in New York City, I kept returning to a particular concern: I would soon be responsible for the scientific advancement of trainees. How could I help them be the best scientists they could be, while also protecting their well-being?
I found the answer on Twitter. Two principal investigators in my field, Jonathan Peelle at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, and Maureen Ritchey at Boston College in Massachusetts, shared their lab manuals. These laid out expectations for themselves and their trainees, as well as resources and tips to guide trainees through their time in the lab. I decided to follow in their footsteps by writing a lab manual to introduce my trainees to my philosophy for research and work–life balance. This required a great deal of time and thought, but it is something I would recommend to anyone leading a research group.
In the final few months of my postdoctoral studies, I thought about what had worked well and not so well for me as a trainee, and how to create best practices for my lab. Then I put into writing things that are usually transmitted informally. For example, that it doesn’t matter to me whether trainees arrive at 9 a.m. or 1 p.m. or work from home, as long as they get their work done and honour their commitments. And I explicitly encouraged trainees to talk to me if they need to vent or feel they are foundering: academia can be stressful, and I want to help.
I addressed concerns that I imagined trainees would have: what if I make a mistake in my experiment? (It’s OK, we all do; tell your collaborators right away so that you can start to discuss the next steps.) Do I have to work 80 hours a week to succeed? (No.) How do I ensure my results are reproducible? (Double-check your code, add explanatory comments, document every step of data analysis and use version control.) How do I participate in open science? (Publicly share stimuli, code and data when you submit a manuscript.)
I supplemented my lab manual ( with a wiki (, a website of resources for lab members. This included everything from tools for learning the programming languages R and Python and how to do neuroimaging analyses, to tips on keeping up with the research literature (by using RSS feeds and Twitter) and where to find the best bagel in Manhattan (a ten-minute walk from the lab). My goal was that any newly accepted lab member could read the manual and wiki and then strut into the lab knowing what to expect.
I try hard to keep myself accountable for what I have written. For instance, I promised weekly meetings with each trainee, and I stick to that, although it’s a challenge with teaching obligations and travel. I hope that the consistency between my actions and my words helps lab members to understand that I meant what I wrote, even if they have yet to experience everything I promised.
I ask every trainee to read the lab manual. I make a point of referencing it and the wiki, along with repeated, not-so-subtle examples of their utility. My lab members now contribute to the wiki without prompting. When I checked in with them to see whether these resources were useful, the answer was a resounding ‘yes’. Their actions also suggest that they internalized what they read. Some share struggles with me, ask for advice and take days off for mental health — as I hoped they would, and as I wish I had done when I was a trainee.
Here’s another example: my lab manual states that trainees are entitled to read my grants, and my lab members have requested to see them. That’s something I never asked my previous advisers; I worried it would be presumptuous. I realize now that my thinking was almost certainly wrong, but my own uneasy feelings as a trainee just drive home how important it is to put into writing that something is OK — otherwise, trainees might assume it is not. That goes double for the areas that trainees are most sensitive about: I’ve written down in black and white that it is OK to make mistakes and to maintain a work–life balance.
Putting together a lab manual and wiki takes time, but there are several examples to use for inspiration. My lab manual and wiki are publicly available for anyone to use as starting points. Once the wiki has been written, the entire lab can help to maintain it; if everyone pitches in, any particular update will often take only a few minutes.
The initial effort of writing a manual saves enormous amounts of time in the long run. I no longer have to repeatedly search my e-mails or the Internet to find the answer to a problem I previously solved but have forgotten. Likewise, my trainees do not have to struggle to find answers to commonly asked questions (for example, ‘how do I get after-hours access to the building?’). More importantly, having a lab manual requires you to be explicit and transparent about your expectations and what you promise to do for your lab — every trainee reads the same expectations in the same words, putting everyone on equal footing.
A year after writing the lab manual, I re-read and revised it. That process reminded me of all that was at stake: all that I promised my trainees and all that I needed to do to ensure a healthy, happy and safe lab environment. It also led me to reflect on how pleased I am with my lab. My trainees are hard-working, sociable and supportive of one another. I love walking in and seeing them working together on a problem, or laughing and dancing when they’ve solved one. I might have written the lab manual, but my trainees brought it to life.

Nature 561, 7 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-06167-w

Help to shape policy with your science

Decision-makers need input from researchers on issues involving science and society.
Taken from
Megan Evans got a crash course in science policy in 2011. As a research assistant at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, she joined a project helping the Australian government to develop a tool to compensate for the environmental effects of commercial land development and other activities. If a protected species might be harmed, for example, the ‘biodiversity offset’ tool would help the government to determine how much extra habitat to set aside. Evans loved the project’s applied nature.
Many early-career researchers are drawn to the intersection of science and policy, says Evans, now an honorary research fellow at the Centre for Policy Futures at the University of Queensland. But it can be hard to know where to start, she says. And there can be career penalties for junior scientists. Policy-based work can be time-consuming and hard to fund, and helping to shape a law or management plan might not look as good on a tenure application as do high-profile publications. All scientists must also cope with the political realities of helping to translate scientific evidence — replete with uncertainties — into clear-cut laws and regulations. Because of this, many say, science can underpin good policy, but rarely defines it.
Even so, engaging in policy has never been more important, says Tateo Arimoto, a science-policy expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. Society and the world are changing rapidly, he says, and policymakers need scientific evidence to guide decisions on issues from climate change to artificial intelligence. “The mission of modern science is not only creating new knowledge,” he says, but “using scientific knowledge to address social issues”.
Researchers can take proactive measures to increase the policy impact of their work. They should establish strong relationships with elected officials or government staff members, and learn to provide clear and concise summaries of existing scientific evidence to help policymakers to understand the options. Scientists and policymakers can also collaborate on projects aimed at real-world questions. The important thing is to be humble and open, Evans says. “If you want to engage with policy, you need to go cap in hand, and say, ‘How can I help?’”

Connect and observe

The first step, Evans says, is to connect with policymakers. In a paper this July designed to help other early-career scientists to navigate the policy landscape1, Evans and Chris Cvitanovic, a researcher at the University of Tasmania’s Centre for Marine Socioecology in Hobart, suggest that scientists first observe how policymaking works for their issue of interest. Approaches such as reading the news and setting up Google alerts for relevant keywords are helpful, they say.
Then, scientists can determine who in the policy world might be interested in particular aspects of their work and why, and how those people interact with one another. Lawmakers, officials in a national government’s executive branch and their aides could be one audience, as could staff members at government agencies who implement those policies. Evans recommends sketching a map of potential contacts that researchers can refine over time.
Senior scientists with existing policy contacts can help early-career researchers to make connections. Scientists can also introduce themselves and their work to the legislators who represent their home districts. “It can be as simple as getting out of the office and going to talk to people face to face,” says David Rose, an environmental geographer at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, who studies science and policy. He also advises scientists to contact groups of lawmakers who are interested in the issues they study. For instance, members of the US Congress have created caucuses, or alliances, to advance neuroscience and planetary science. The United Kingdom has all-party parliamentary groups on such topics as cancer and wildlife conservation, and, in Australia, parliament has ‘friendship groups’ focused on science and medicines.
Rose also recommends setting up meetings with government employees who provide science advice to lawmakers, such as members of the European Union’s Parliamentary Research Service, or government science advisers. Peter Gluckman, who was chief science adviser to the prime minister of New Zealand until June 2018, says that for maximum impact, written letters highlighting an issue or providing science advice should come from a professional society, institute or national academy. Still, blogging and using social media can increase visibility for scientists and the issues they want to emphasize, Evans says, and Twitter can help in connecting with key policymakers.
Researchers might also forge fruitful relationships with employees of the government agencies and departments that work to enact existing legislation. For example, California laws require the state to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, partly by storing more carbon in soils. So Katharine Mach, a climate-assessment scientist at Stanford University in Stanford, California, has been helping the state’s agriculture, forestry and other agencies to evaluate the benefits of land-management practices such as adding compost or charcoal to soils.
Mach and her colleagues joined the effort at the invitation of the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, both in California, which sought the researchers’ expertise in policy-relevant climate science. But Mach says that scientists at any career stage can help to shape government programmes. One effective way, she says, is to submit letters and evaluations when officials solicit public feedback on proposed regulations or plans of action. “Those are incredibly important and also kind of fun,” she says. “You are thinking in real time about a good approach.” She signs up to government e-mail lists to stay apprised of upcoming workshops and requests for input. (Alternatively, Evans says, researchers can make connections by offering to give a talk at an agency or in a department’s regular seminar series.)

Meet and greet

Toni Lyn Morelli, an ecologist at the US Geological Survey in Amherst, Massachusetts, recommends attending a variety of conferences. She wanted to connect with state wildlife officials about her work on the future of streams in which cold-water fish live. She decided against organizing a session at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America because she knew that few managers would attend. So she went to a conference hosted by the Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, where she reserved a room and invited managers to stop and talk — and eat pizza. “We got great people.”
When scientists get involved in policy, they should be careful not to advocate for specific solutions, warns Gluckman. Instead, he says, quoting from a book by political scientist and public-policy expert Roger Pielke Jr, a scientist should be an ‘honest broker’, helping policymakers to understand possible policy options and their consequences.
This was Craig Downs’s approach when he helped Hawaiian legislators to draft a bill to ban sun creams containing chemicals that research from Downs and others has shown to be harmful to coral reefs2. Downs, an ecotoxicologist and director of the non-profit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Clifford, Virginia, explained to lawmakers the chemicals’ impacts and the implications of policy options, such as imposing a temporary or a permanent ban, but didn’t advocate for one in particular. He knew that legislators had to balance many factors, including how the ban might affect sun-cream manufacturers. (Facing strong public pressure, the lawmakers passed a permanent ban in May. It was approved last month.)

Tateo Arimoto

Japanese science-policy expert Tateo Arimoto uses scientific knowledge to address social issues.Credit: IISD/ENB/Kiara Worth

In any interaction, Rose says, it’s important to use clear, accessible language and, if possible, to tell a compelling story about the science. Most of all, scientists should understand that policymakers rarely want to hear about the results of a researcher’s latest peer-reviewed study. When Rose polled members of the UK Parliament, he found that most wanted a succinct overview of the current body of knowledge on an issue3. Arimoto says that researchers should try to bring in as many threads as possible that might be relevant to policy. “Individual scientists need not only the capability of analysis, but also to synthesize,” he says.
Downs suggests honing a three-minute ‘elevator pitch’ for in-person meetings with lawmakers. Gluckman advises scientists to prepare written materials as policy briefs, leading with key points, offering relevant caveats and then laying out possible options. (Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, offers an online guide; researchers can also contribute to scientific reviews targeted at policymakers, such as those published by the Oxford Martin School, UK, and the Campbell Collaboration in Oslo.)
Scientists can seek in-depth training on how to interact with policymakers. Gluckman chairs the International Network for Government Science Advice, which hosts conferences and workshops that bring together scientists and policymakers worldwide. Many universities and professional organizations, including the American Institute for Biological Sciences in McLean, Virginia, offer ‘boot camps’ for researchers.
Gluckman also recommends that scientists take a sabbatical in the policymaking sphere. For instance, one can apply to be a Science and Technology Policy Fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or to be a research fellow at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. Scientists can also take a temporary appointment at a government science agency, the United Nations, the World Health Organization or the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), among others. Those who have policy experience, Gluckman says, learn how to operate in both worlds.

Slow burn

Scientists who engage in policy should not expect immediate results. The diffusion of science into policy is often incremental, says Matthew MacLeod, an environmental chemist at Stockholm University. His research group is designing a new version of the test that the OECD recommends countries use to assess bioaccumulation of a substance when deciding how to regulate it. His version takes less than half the time of the standard test and requires about one-third of the fish, which serve as the test subjects. But he anticipates that it will be ten years before it’s adopted.
Often, a catalysing event piques policymakers’ appetite for scientific evidence. That’s why scientists should make a long-term investment in policy work, Evans says, and be ready to act when the opportunity arises. For instance, she recalls, the Australian government decided to implement the biodiversity-offsets project when a new minister took office, and drew on well-established research. “We ended up being able to use that science really quickly.” Evans adds that researchers should pay attention to changes in administrations in their own and other jurisdictions that might increase the receptiveness of policymakers to scientific evidence.
There can be cases, however, when the evidence isn’t yet strong enough to spur action, says Ian Boyd, chief scientific adviser at the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. For example, he says, research over the past decade on whether neonicotinoid pesticides harm bees hasn’t yielded clear answers about population-level effects. In an opinion article earlier this year, Boyd explained he had become convinced that the chemicals were being used more widely than was recognized and offered growers only a marginal benefit4. However, he lamented the lack of rigorous studies quantifying the actual danger they posed to pollinators. The United Kingdom ultimately backed the EU’s decision to ban the chemicals.
To make sure science influences policy, it’s best to collaborate with policymakers from the start, says Mach. “Scientists doing science in isolation won’t know what questions are most relevant, and also won’t really influence decisions,” she says. Collaboration requires reaching out to policymakers and agency staff long before research begins, listening closely to their questions and needs, and shaping studies around those. After that, she says, scientists must maintain regular contact, share preliminary results and be ready to change the focus of a research project in response to feedback.
It’s challenging, but Mach and others find working at the interface of science and policy extremely rewarding. After all, like many researchers, Mach went into science eager to tackle issues that matter. “There’s something that’s really motivating about doing science that is attuned to the bigger picture,” she says.

Nature 560, 671-673 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-06038-4

Want to connect with other graduate students? Check out this new online community

By Elisabeth Pain
Taken from
Brittany Jack has been using Slack, the electronic communication and collaboration tool, since she joined Prachee Avasthi’s lab. Jack, who has just completed the first year of her Ph.D. at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, uses it to keep Avasthi up to date on her results and ask for advice. She’s also found it helpful for communicating with her labmates: a postdoctoral fellow, a research assistant, and three undergraduate researchers. But it wasn’t until another graduate student, Brae Bigge, started a rotation in the lab this spring that Jack realized how much she could gain from daily communication with trainees at her same career stage. And she realized that Slack could be just the tool to help make that happen—in a big way. Last month, Jack, together with Bigge and fellow grad student and friend Rosalyn Henn, launched Grad Student Slack. It joins a growing list of Slack groups for scientists, including New PI Slack (which Avasthi founded in 2016), Future PI Slack, and Mid-Career PI Slack. “I just wanted to have a community and … camaraderie with graduate students across the world,” Jack says. “We are all going through the same thing, and we can give each other advice.”
The only requirement to join Grad Student Slack is that you are a master’s or Ph.D. student. It is still in its early days, but the group already has some 300 members. Most of the interest is coming from the United States, Canada, Europe, and India, but there is also some from Asia and Australia. So far, members have created more than 40 discussion channels. Some are dedicated to research topics as diverse as cell and molecular biology, ecology, computer science, and the humanities. Others are forums to discuss how to prepare for qualifying exams, write a paper or thesis, mentor undergraduate students, participate in journal clubs, and engage in science communication. There are channels dedicated to professional and personal growth, covering the relationship with your principal investigator (PI), career development, job hunting, and being a scientist parent. A few channels promote networking within specific geographical regions. Yet others will help you get through a bad day or cultivate your mental health.
“It is a space for open and honest discussions about graduate school, both the personal and the professional aspects of it,” says Ankita Patil, who has just finished the third year of her neuroscience Ph.D. program at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Patil has already gotten tips on how to tackle graduate school’s workload, contributed to answering questions about attending conferences, and discussed research. “It’s also nice that there are plenty of students who actively engage in the conversations. It definitely allows you to voice your opinions or ideas without feeling like they may be singled out or dismissed.”
“Grad Student Slack is able to provide that broader sense of community that I haven’t yet found on campus,” says Joshua Landman, who completed a master’s degree in computer science at Washington University in St. Louis in Missouri and will begin a Ph.D. in data science there in August. He didn’t have a cohort during his master’s degree, and as an incoming student it’s not always easy to get to know people, says Landman, who was among the first people to join the Slack group after a friend sent him an invitation. Through Grad Student Slack, “I’ve met other students both within my discipline and from other branches of science, not to mention students at my university that I wouldn’t have otherwise interacted with,” he says. That is particularly important, because “grad school can, in some ways, be isolating.”
As Bryn Sachdeo, a final-year Ph.D. candidate in nutritional biochemistry and physiology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, puts it, “I see Grad Student Slack as a peer-support dream team.” Connecting with others this way can help fill the gaps that many students experience—even those with supportive PIs, thesis committees, and broader communities. So far, Sachdeo has exchanged postdoc hunting tips with an astrophysicist and a neuropharmacologist and given feedback on a thesis abstract about Drosophila genetics. She also appreciates that she can interact with the group on her timeline. “If I have an insane schedule and don’t have the energy for it, I can choose to not engage at all,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s a voluntary social media platform, so you get out what you put in.”
As the discussions have the potential to delve into sensitive topics, one issue is anonymity—or lack thereof. All members must register with their full names and state their year in graduate school to be verified as graduate students. The founders opted for this policy because they wanted members to feel comfortable being open about their experiences, without the risk of retaliation from more senior researchers or other negative consequences. But members still need to be careful not to reveal anything that they may come to regret later, the founders warn. The group’s code of conduct, which emphasizes respect and courtesy, also invites students who feel too uncomfortable to participate to get in touch with the founders so that they can consider granting anonymity on a case-by-case basis. “We have not crossed that bridge yet,” Jack says, but “we are aware of the fact that [some students] might need to discuss problems with their PI and other people from their lab could be in [the Slack group].”
The founders see Grad Student Slack not only as a service to their community, but also an investment in their own futures. During a Ph.D., “the later years are often the more difficult ones,” says Henn, who is just about to start her second year. “Knowing that later on, we will be able to have this community that is going through the same experiences at the same time will be really beneficial.”

The surprises of starting as a new PI

Article taken from:
By: Elisabeth Pain
Late one night, cell biologist Prachee Avasthi was poring over data that had come in earlier that day, when she came across a result she describes as “exceedingly rare and unfathomable”: A gene that her lab was already investigating was a key player in another cellular process they had recently become interested in. “I tried but couldn’t contain my excitement,” says Avasthi, a principal investigator (PI) at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City. So she posted about it on Slack, the electronic communication and collaboration tool her team uses. Even though she didn’t expect anyone to see it at that late hour, she was just happy to convey her excitement there, knowing that she and her lab members would “share some happy moments of awe and disbelief the next day.”
This lab community, however, was a few years in the making. When Avasthi started out as an assistant professor in 2015, she was surprised at how isolating the position could feel. As a trainee, “you are in somebody’s lab, and you have a cohort of other classmates, and more importantly you have that adviser who, if you make a big discovery or thought of a great new idea, is someone that you can tell that is as excited about it as you are,” she says. But when you become a PI, all of a sudden, “that vanishes.” Back in her early days as a PI, there were many times when she was “bursting with excitement,” only to wonder, “Who do I tell?” (In 2016, this question prompted Avasthi to create a Slack community of new PIs that now has more than 950 members from around the world.)
Many new PIs experience similarly unexpected bumps in the road as they transition from trainee to head honcho. The features of the job that many aspiring academics look forward to—such as having the freedom to pursue your own ideas, running your lab how you want, and gaining more recognition—come with new responsibilities and challenges, including some that are unforeseen. To address this gap, both for new PIs and for trainees who are considering whether they want to pursue the PI path, Science Careers talked with Avasthi and three other scientists about the unexpected challenges of starting their labs and what they learned along the way.

Taking—and ceding—control

“You have this idea that once you are the boss, you can do what you want and whenever you want,” Avasthi recalls thinking when she was a trainee. But once she started her new role as a PI, she quickly found that was not quite the case. Between her current teaching responsibilities, meetings, and other commitments, “this is the least amount of control over my schedule that I’ve ever had,” Avasthi says. One of her coping strategies is working from home when she needs to really focus on digging into some new data or writing a paper or grant application.
The responsibility that comes with authority also informs her approach to managing her research program. As a postdoc, “if I had an idea in my head and I was beyond excited, I could just drop everything and do it,” she says. But as a PI, she has to think carefully about reprioritizing experiments. “You don’t want to hijack people in their productivity by changing gears all the time,” she says. You have to “take into account how much pressure you are putting on people and let them have a chance to decide for themselves.”
That mindset has also helped her deal with the “huge amount of decision fatigue” that comes with having “one million decisions [all] waiting on you”—another aspect of the job that Avasthi hadn’t anticipated as a trainee. She has learned to rely more and more on her trainees to make minor decisions for the lab, such as choosing what reagents to order, which allows her to “spend my time doing things that only I can do,” such as writing major grant proposals.
In becoming a PI, “there are certain things that were different” from what she expected, Avasthi says. But they aren’t all challenges. All in all, she says, being a PI “has been even better than I hoped.”

Managing management

When systems biologist Johannes Jaeger started as a PI at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain, he was all about the science. “I was extremely excited to be able to do my own stuff with so many resources,” he recalls. But, he continues, “I was completely unprepared in terms of how to manage a group.”
Early on, Jaeger made a few management decisions that he would come to regret. In one case, he hired a trainee based on their technical expertise, even though he had some misgivings about whether they would be a good match for his personality and advising style. He thought that the trainee’s knowledge would outweigh the “fit” factor. And the researcher did help push the lab forward—but they also proved difficult to work with and disruptive to the lab, Jaeger says. The lesson, he says, is that when it comes to hiring lab members, CVs can’t tell the whole story.
With time, Jaeger realized that not only was he unprepared for the managerial aspects of running a multidisciplinary lab—such as getting researchers with different backgrounds to collaborate and understand each other; overseeing the budget; and making sure that reagents for experiments were ordered, scientific equipment was maintained, and computational infrastructure was kept up-to-date—he didn’t enjoy being completely absorbed by them. Rather than feeling like he was doing research, it felt “almost like leading a small company,” he says, which wasn’t what he wanted. He missed having the chunks of time that he once enjoyed as a postdoc to do his own research, think, and write.
Hand-in-hand with the managerial responsibilities came the pressure to succeed, which Jaeger initially found difficult to cope with. Some of this pressure was self-imposed, with Jaeger setting research targets that he describes as overly ambitious and “unnecessarily scary.” But his high-risk project took almost 4 years to yield publications, which made getting grants difficult. Those were frustrating times, Jaeger adds. “I was worrying a lot.”
One year after passing his 5-year evaluation, Jaeger decided to close his lab to become the scientific director of a small institute in Austria. He is currently writing a book and teaching while considering his next career steps. His advice to new PIs who envision a traditional academic career is “to trust yourself and to let yourself grow into the role. It’s not that your life completely changes and you suddenly have to be on top of everything. You have some spare space and time to learn on the job, and that’s the only way you can do it.”

Facing greater exposure

For physicist Martina Müller, who runs a lab at the Jülich Research Center in Germany, the sense of exposure that can come with being a PI took her by surprise. “As a postdoc, you are responsible for yourself and maybe one or two students, but there is always a professor taking care of the final things,” she says. “And then from one day to the other, you are responsible for other people, money, teaching students, and so on,” says Müller, who also holds a junior professor position at the Technical University of Dortmund.
At times, being the one in charge forces you to be the bad guy when you have to make decisions “that are maybe not so popular” with your trainees, says Müller, who tries to cultivate a flat, nonhierarchical structure in her lab to the extent that she can. Earlier this year, for example, she had to tell a student that they needed to delay taking their summer vacation because the trainee’s holiday plans clashed with a coveted slot they had secured at a synchrotron facility.
It’s not just within the lab. PIs need to be ready to step up and defend their ideas and positions to colleagues and higher-ranking professors, within their institute and beyond, Müller says. This “costs energy, and if you are not completely an alpha person, this is something that you have to work on.”
What Müller expected least was the sense of exposure that she came to experience as a woman in a male-dominated working environment. As an early-career physicist, she had become accustomed to being in the minority, but she had never really felt set apart or experienced potential bias against her. Now, in meetings, she is all too often the only woman in the room, which brings a peculiar sort of visibility. “The focus is at some point on you, and you have to sit very straight” and be impeccable professionally, “and this also costs a bit of energy,” Müller says. Often, she also feels the need to show greater competence and say things more forcefully than her male colleagues to be treated equally. “I had not foreseen really how it feels to stand up or to be in many situations alone as a female.”
It helped that, as she started her position, Müller participated in a 2-year leadership training program for women in science. Even more useful has been developing a network of peers at her same career stage. “You cannot talk to your boss or students about certain topics,” such as work overload, conflicts with and between trainees, or gender issues, she says. The network offers the outlet she needs to talk about these issues with other young PIs who are experiencing similar problems. These conversations help her find the support and advice she needs to stand up for herself and manage the challenges.

Achieving balance

For microbiologist James “Jake” McKinlay, one of the biggest surprises when he started as a professor in 2011 was how challenging teaching—and the time management that comes with it—can be. His assistant professorship at Indiana University in Bloomington called for him to spend 25% of his time teaching, with the remaining 75% committed to research. He thought this would be a good balance for him—it was one of the reasons he took the job in the first place.
But the undergraduate course that he was assigned to teach during his first year soon became all-consuming. “I wanted my course to be really special,” McKinlay recalls, so he gave his students all kinds of projects and homework. “I don’t think I realized how much time it would take just to put together a basic lecture. … I tried to do too much too early.” Preparing the material for the course and grading the assignments left little time for research. “My research program all but stopped that semester, and that was really bad.”
The experience eventually forced McKinlay to dedicate specific blocks of time for his research and set more realistic standards for his teaching. By his third year, when he taught his first graduate course, “I was more willing to ease myself into it,” he says, which made both his teaching and research more enjoyable and effective.
The same time management challenge kept presenting itself in many forms. As a professor, you get daily requests to help students and colleagues, sit on committees, and perform community service, McKinlay says. It is essential that you learn to balance all these duties while also protecting your time, he adds.
Today, he always tries to help students and be a good colleague. But as McKinlay has become more established—he was promoted to associate professor in July—he has learned to be more selective in the tasks he accepts, for example only agreeing to review papers that he is really interested in. Saying “no” is difficult, but he knew that to continue contributing in the long term, he needed to secure tenure first.
Part of adjusting his workload and schedule also involved adjusting his own expectations of himself. “You can let aspects of the job, be it teaching or research or service, take as much of you as you let it,” he says. “It’s really forced me to recognize my limits … and to try to work within them.”
This mindset has proved important not just for McKinlay’s professional success and satisfaction, but also for his personal happiness. In addition to making sure he has time for work and his family, “I realized that I need to also dedicate time for myself, otherwise it’s not healthy … and it’s not fun for anybody.”