If you’re a new student shopping for a research lab how do you know where you will be successful? Turns out the best fit might not be based on the individuals in a group, the PI, personalities, expertise, or talent. The most important factor of an effective lab could be the group dynamics.

In a recent podcast by Hello PhD they discussed an internal study that Google ran to determine what recipe of personal (race, age, education, expertise, personality, etc.) was key for creating an effective team.

It’s easy to see why this would be important to Google, but it’s also of importance to PhD students, post-docs, and PIs. Having an effective team means you are meeting your goals (i.e. publishing, getting grant money, graduating students, placing people in good positions).

To the surprise of the authors they found that:

Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.

Now, when I think about labs that I have been in over the last decade and the ones I would deem effective this conclusion doesn’t come as a surprise. So, let’s explore these properties and the questions you should be asking yourself whether you are looking for a lab home or have already found it.

5 properties of an effective team


1) Psychological safety

I believe this is the #1 killer for many organic chemistry groups, and perhaps many academic research groups in general.

Grad school puts strange pressure on people where we don’t want to show anyone else that we are vulnerable, that we don’t know something, or that we aren’t smart enough to be there (a.k.a impostor syndrome). Having a lab environment where it isn’t okay to be vulnerable or to be a student is only going to amplify this feeling.

And somehow organic chemistry still glorifies egotism. Perhaps it is just the nature of the work. Or perhaps it’s the people the work attracts (I like to think the former, but definitely there are cases of the ladder).

What to look for:

  • Watch to see if grad students ask questions during lab meetings. If they don’t it could be because the group’s dynamics don’t provide a safe place for fully formed questions or thoughts.
  • Are only the post-docs asking questions and discussing the research? That tells you something about the hierarchy of the group.
  • If the grad students are asking questions, are they safe questions or are they putting themselves out there?
  • Importantly, what type of response does this bring from other members and the PI?

 2) Dependability

For some labs this is more important than others. Are you working on a project by yourself or are you part of a team with individual components that unify a central goal? The ladder makes this point critical.

Even an individual project run lab must depend on each other though. Think about group jobs. Think about what happens if the lab runs out of TLC plates or a common solvent. Now imagine if that happens on a daily or weekly basis.

A more subtle issue is when there is a minority of people who aren’t putting in the time at the bench or when you start feeling like you are the only one putting in the time required to get the work done. This is a tricky thing to define, but one of those that you know it when you see it.

What to look for:

  • Are people having to remind others of their group jobs?
  • Is there a large disparity in the time members are at their bench?
  • Does the PI follow up on his promises to send you that research article or are you always having to try to hunt him down?
  • Do lab members ask each other questions at the bench? If so, are they helpful to each other or dismissive?

 3) Structure and clarity

The biggest issue I’ve seen on this topic comes down to the thesis project. This can happen if the aims of the project and how those aims are going to be achieved aren’t clear. Or if there are different opinions from the PI vs. you on how to achieve those aims.

I’ve also seen it happen when members are told to go do something only to be left without a direction on how to actually start achieving that goal. And I’ve seen people being moved around from project to project every few months or taken off a project just when it’s starting to produce good results.

These are issues that can kill a PhD or make the time to complete go from 5 years to 7 years (range variable by field).

What to look for:

  • Frustration from students after meeting with the PI
  • All out arguments during group meetings
  • Students who are unable to make progress when asked to do a new technique (it may not be the student’s fault)

4 and 5) Meaning and Impact

These last two are probably the lowest factors for determining an effective lab. Sure sometimes we all need to remind ourselves why we are slaving away so much in lab, but in the end we all have our own personal reasons for being in grad school.

And hopefully the impact of your work is clear and is something your group as a whole values. However, I have seen labs where the members were really down on just how much “real world” impact their research might have, which led to low morale. And a lab with low morale is going to lose out on being effective and productive.

What to look for:

  • Lab funding. Seriously. If there is meaning and impact, then the PI should be bringing in money. If not you should ask yourself why there isn’t funding. It may be time to abandon ship, or if the meaning is there and funding isn’t, it’s time to generate some preliminary data and apply for grants.
  • Take the temperature on the morale of the lab. Ask people about their projects. If they are all bored when talking that’s a red flag.

How do you become an effective lab if you aren’t?

If you are a new student you fix the issue by deciding if it’s a deal breaker. If so, look for another lab to join.

However, what about us in labs who read this and were counting off how many different things the lab is doing wrong? How do you fix it?

The first thing to realize is that we all want the same thing. We all want our labs to do good science, have good relations with each other, publish our work in journals that reach our desired audience, and move on to better positions.

So I recommend communicating this to the lab (I know, I know, it’s hard, but it’s even harder to stay working in an ineffective lab or to jump ship for another lab/university). Ask the lab members the questions in these 5 categories and do a self evaluation.

My hope is that as scientists and adults we can put away the ego and the bullshit to identify the issues and find a way to make our lab the best we can possibly become.


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