Friday, January 01, 2010

Short rant and random question about lab meetings

I went to flip the calendar ahead today to see what is cooking for the next two months, and realized it's time for a new one. Whew!

Looking back over the year, no matter how good my multitasking and planning, I realize I still get a lot more benchwork done during weeks when I don't have meetings or seminars interrupting my workflow. This is probably because nothing is really maintained where I work, so inevitably I have to build in extra time for both macro- and micro- catastrophic failures. My favorites include things like:

1. showing up to use (essential equipment) X, only to find that X
a) will not turn on
b) is lying in pieces on the floor
c) is gone (to another building, with the lab that owned it, or back to the company because we never actually bought it).

2. going to grab a tube of (essential ingredient) Y from the freezer, only to find that
a) we have no Y
b) the freezer is defrosted so the Y we had went bad
c) the brand-new batch of Y I just ordered from when the freezer was broken arrived yesterday but sat out at room temp overnight and went bad because I was in another room when it arrived, nobody told me, and nobody put it away (note that it is supposed to be everyone's responsibility to receive orders and put away shared things like Y, so why do I always feel like I'm the only one who does it?)

3. going to call the repair person for X, or for the freezer, or to order more Y, and finding that
a) it is after hours where the repair people's company is located
b) the fancy ordering system is not working so I can't place an order
c) I can send an email to the fancy ordering system repair office but they are gone for the day.

I'm not making this up. These kinds of things happen ALL THE TIME. I blame the "management" (cough, cough).

So I'm thinking, having meetings really sucks when you need uninterrupted time to put out fires, make phone calls, and yell at people. Those weeks (which is most weeks), I really resent having to stop yelling at someone who broke X just to go to a stupid lab meeting where I tell someone how to get their experiments to work, they ignore me, and then we all go back to our benches.

So here is my question for you: when would you rather have lab meeting?

I've been to labs that met afternoons, or mornings, or only very irregularly, or in sub-groups in addition to the main group meeting, and even if the boss was out of town.

I've known people who worked in labs that met at lunchtime and provided food; ones that met Friday afternoon and provided beer; and others that met - I'm not making this up - Saturday mornings. Early on Saturday mornings. (Personally, I think that's unfair for a variety of reasons, so as far as I'm concerned, that would never get my vote.)

I've heard all kinds of rationales for why people do it when they do it:

Mondays you get it out of the way and everyone is fresh; mid-week doesn't interfere with people's weekend travels; mid-day doesn't interfere with dropping off or picking up kids at daycare; Friday afternoon is most relaxed, you can get away with having alcohol, and the meeting can run later (for those who don't need to pick up kids at daycare or take off for a long weekend!). And then there's always the problem of booking a room if your lab is big enough to require more than a small office worth of space.

So when do you think is most productive and least disruptive? If you've visited various labs, say, for rotations or postdoc interviews, did you care when it was? Or is it just that everyone eventually comes to resent lab meeting no matter what time it's held?

Oh and while we're at it, how do you feel about meeting one-on-one with your advisor? Personally, I met with my thesis advisor weekly during much of grad school, and found it was essential for me to keep him informed of my plans and ask him questions (translation: to justify my needing to buy stuff and get his permission to buy stuff) because we only had whole-group meetings very rarely.

As a postdoc, we have lab meetings regularly, but getting a one-on-one meeting with my never-present advisor is nearly impossible and almost never happens (and I'm almost never allowed to buy the stuff I need to do my project).

I'm thinking there has to be a happy medium. I know some people prefer the group format because they find their advisors are on better behavior (aka nicer, more professional) than when they meet in private. But the drawback there is, you might not really get as much feedback. The unprofessional behavior thing is more way prevalent than I would have predicted when I was a grad student, and much more of a problem for women (I know it has been a big problem for me).

oh and happy new year! I bet you can't wait to go to the first lab meeting of 2010!

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24 Comments:

At 5:37 PM, Blogger yolio said...

I really think that both regular lab meetings and one-on-one meetings is not too much to ask. But, if I had to choose, I'd choose one-on-one. It is the only way that you will get anything useful out of your advisor.

As for time, I find it useful to have a built in ending time. Usually this means the meeting will be in the late afternoon because people have to leave at a certain time to get their kids. Mid-day is the worst, it always interupts.

 
At 5:55 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

In grad school, we had group meeting at 8 am on Monday mornings. At that time, The Boss scheduled one-on-one meetings with some of us or small collections of us, depending on what papers were being written, grants that were due, etc. I didn't mind the 8 am call time because we were usually done by 10 am, and so I still had a big chunk of time before noon seminars. Also, it forced everyone else to get up early...which I found amusing.

 
At 7:06 PM, Blogger chall said...

I'm not a morning person but I do think lab meetings in the morning are good since they allow you to "get it over and done with". Personally, I like Tuesday mornign at 10 or 9 am. The later time allows for me to do something in the morning...

Tuesdays since then you don't have to prepare anything for lab meeting Sunday night (as if it is Monday morning). You can have a planned week and actually do something good when starting Monday morning. Otherwise, Wednesday or Thursday afternoon isn't too bad either. like 3.30 pm if people are good at keeping to one hour kind of (also allows for going to the pub afterwards) but I still favour the morning meeting.

Some collegeus of mine have the joy of 8 am Monday and 4.30 pm Friday... I dunno... but for me, that would be death. Plus that I don't think you have the "right" to do Friday afternoon since it must be up to you when you want t o leave (since you are more likely than not to return for Sat morning)

 
At 7:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post. :) Happy New Year!

In both my PhD lab (monday at 9am) and my postdoc lab (friday at 1pm), I have found that how much I hate/don't mind lab meeting depends mostly on my labmates. From time-to-time each lab has had one of those terrible personalities who thinks they are smarter than everyone, and who tends to be rude, etc.. These people make lab meeting hell. When those people leave, and those who are left get along, lab meeting's not so bad. Especially when the person presenting the data does a good job and it's thought-provoking...

My favorite time to have lab meeting is on a day of the week when we already have a lot of other meetings. I much prefer to have as many meetings as possible on one single day, so as not to screw up experiments on multiple days.

My PhD advisor ran a pretty small lab so it wasn't hard to meet one-on-one. My postdoc advisor runs a much bigger lab, but if I request to meet with him (especially if I tell him I have some new data...) he will almost always put me on his calendar for sometime within the next ~week or so.

 
At 10:48 AM, OpenID rocketscientista said...

I find that in my current smaller group, group meetings are somewhat superfluous. Especially seeing as we have pretty good communication. However, it is the one time each week we can guarantee our advisor will be there & we can talk.

I prefer earlier in the week group meetings (I HATE Friday meetings! HATE!), somewhat middle of the day (lunch +/- an hour). We currently do the good timeslot--I already plan on being distracted around then and it's early enough to keep harassing/making phone calls after. I just HATE Friday group meetings. Too much stress + pressure on Fridays.

But my group is rad. Went to a party with labmates on NYE, and went to advisor's house for a party on New Year's Day, so I'd say I've got it pretty good. But I still don't look forward to first lab meeting. Shudder.

 
At 11:09 AM, Anonymous Egg said...

In my current lab, we have both group and individual meetings on a weekly basis--all on Tuesdays. I think Tuesday was picked because it's the only day of the week that doesn't have a regularly scheduled seminar or journal club, so my PI can devote an entire day to meeting with his people. It's during lunchtime, which I could take or leave but it allows both the early and late risers to be there without too much stress. I don't really care what day or time lab meeting happens, though I tend to think that early or late times are problematic. I love the individual meetings and I think my PI does a great job of tailoring his mentoring style to each mentee's strengths/needs. I also think that the individual meetings streamline the group meetings, because people aren't trying to get individual attention during group time and my PI is familiar enough with everyone's current work that there aren't a million questions from his corner. I much prefer this system to the one in my former lab, which involved weekly informal group meetings and intermittent individual meetings. (I have to say that both of the PIs I have worked with have been not only professional but also extremely nice, so I can't speak to the behavior issue.)

 
At 4:41 PM, Blogger LabMom said...

Amen Sister! Lab meeting is just one more chore on the long list of chores that you feel like you spend a lot of time and effort on, and get nothing out of!

We used to have lab meetings Monday AM and Friday PM so nobody could take a long weekend.. Way to build morale boss man!

 
At 8:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hate lab group meetings. I very rarely ever find them useful. I find personal interactions in the lab, in the hallway, over lunch, etc. much more useful in sharing information.

I think lab group meetings are only useful to the PIs because they are not in the lab themselves so this is the only way for them to know what's going on. But even then, since they are already so out of touch, whatever they learn through lab meetings is only the tip of the iceberg and thus they mislead themselves about how much they actually 'know' about the project.

In industry, our meetings were actually purposeful, they were to make group decisions or to get input for the managers to make real decisions. Our meetings were to have discussions about problems and come up with solutions and they were goal-oriented. Like the informal discussions in the hallway or while doing the work, these meetings were a gathering of peers who were all 'in the trenches' working on a common problem, sharing information and helping each other.


But in academia, it is only the PI who gets to make decisions autonomousl, and the PI is almost never "in the trenches" alongside the students and postdocs, so lab meetings are redundant except as status-updates for the PI's benefit and for him to either say OK or to yell and scream at the students.

 
At 9:01 PM, Blogger halcyonidea said...

Happy new year!

My lab group as a whole has a meeting every Monday around 9am to get any large announcements out of the way. I am fine with these meetings--largely because I begin working shortly after 7am, the meetings are over by 10, and they provide donuts to pacify any potential frustrations.

One-on-one meetings with my advisor are short and worthwhile. My advisor is kind/patient enough to wait until I am not otherwise occupied, so that is a great benefit.

It is the numerous other unnecessary meetings during the week which I dislike. Especially when some of the meeting leaders feel the need to stretch a five-minute conversation into a three-hour discussion. (The 'Friday beer meetings' are most vexing for me, as that is when I am hurrying to get instruments running for the weekend.)

Overall, I would say that my lab group prefers Tuesday or Wednesday meetings, as those tend to be less of a time crunch for everyone.

 
At 10:32 AM, Blogger a physicist said...

Each semester I poll my lab group with a long list of possible meeting times, and we narrow it down to the one or two time slots that fit everybody's schedule. (My group usually has several undergrads included, so their class schedules are the biggest constraint.) Thus the meeting time wanders around, but usually ends up mid-afternoon. Not ideal but it works.

I find them to be useful. (1) people get feedback on how to make their experiments go better. (2) People learn what other people are working on, and hopefully why it's an interesting topic. (3) People become aware of techniques. For #3, maybe several months later a student will realize they need to use the whatever-ometer, and they'll remember that another student mentioned that they use the wahtever-ometer quite often.

 
At 7:37 PM, Blogger quietandsmalladventures said...

i hate our group lab meetings, they're 2pm on fridays and inevitably are postponed for at least 15 min while someone finishes up something on an experiment. our one-on-ones are scheduled for tuesday/wednesday, mine's at 1 which is usually a bad thing for me and my PI (i have a mandatory seminar at noon and she has one at 2). i think there's no way to make lab meeting convenient and have just resigned myself to that.

happy new year!!

 
At 9:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We meet in the middle of the week at 4pm. I work for a megalomaniac and our lab meetings consist of one lab member kissing ass and showcasing one or two pieces of "new" data.

The first half hour of the lab meeting is just conversational and administrative bullshit that could be easily be addressed with 2-3 faculty in person or over email. Then, the presenter who has prepared a talk for a full hour will attempt to proceed to give an introduction in which work from other labs are cited. Then, our boss will interrupt ad nauseam about how the previous experiments by other experimenters were flawed. The same thing happens when we finally get to the Methods section of the talk, which falls predictably during the 45 min-1 hr mark. During the actual Results presentation, our boss will be asleep. He will wake up at the tail end of the results and ask superficial questions and go back to slamming the methods (which is presumably the last part he was awake for). Since the talk started late, we finish at about 1.5 - 2 hrs and everyone goes home starving and utterly puzzled about what the lab meeting was about. The talk amongst the other lab members after we've filtered out of the lab meeting room is that the work was preliminary and no conclusions could be drawn from it. I'm not being facetious; this has happened for virtually every single lab meeting I've attended here for the past 3 years.

I am so not looking forward to the first lab meeting of the year.

 
At 5:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hate lab meetings too. I find that it is the content and atmosphere of the meetings that irritates me more than when it is. I just find them useless 90% of the time. We have a PI that spends a ton of his time surfing around the lab and procrastinating so you've already heard everything he is going to say and it always takes way too long for it to get said. The PI is not up to date on literature or the real details of anything and is not offering any science to the discussion. Therefore, it is up to the rest of us to really try and engage and we are considered not nice if we question or try to discuss data or experiments. My point is that it doesn't matter when, beer or no, treats or no. It still just sucks and feels like a waste of time and they should end at least 30 minutes before they do. I'm depressed for a day afterward.

 
At 6:09 PM, Blogger PUI prof said...

My post-doc lab had meetings on Mondays at 10 am. You could get in and get something started, or read literature until the meeting. It was also a good time for the delicious coffee. Every one joked (partially) that Monday at 10am was when the week truly started.

 
At 7:59 PM, Blogger Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

Tues 10 am is my preference, because my experimental prep has a natural downtime then--so I can start the prep at 9, be done by lab meeting, start experiments after that.

Middle of the afternoon is the worst--everyone's sleepy and distracted.

 
At 10:29 AM, Anonymous Eskimo said...

Some PIs have their weekly lab meeting as "around the table" - everyone is expected to say something.
The advantage from the PI's point of view: everyone feels pressure every week. (In my postdoc lab, you could pass, but not more than once.)
The disadvantage is it's hard to understand the context of why someone is doing a given experiment and often you get: this didn't work and I don't know why yet.
And people who work with mice, as opposed to running gels, they're on a longer timeframe that sometimes isn't compatible with this approach.

Other labs just have a rotating meeting schedule, one or two people each week present their data.
The stress is more spaced-out but there is less opportunity for "hey y'all, help me with this."

 
At 6:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

During my time as a PhD student our group has tried having regular meeting at Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays and in the morning, at lunch and in the afternoon. And they STILL think that if we just find the perfect timepoint then everyone will actually start to regularly show up for the meetings...

Sometimes people just don't want to face the conclusions from their experiments (yes, that was ironic)...

 
At 9:26 AM, Blogger Lab Rat said...

To be honest my favourite type of lab meeting is a 'lunch' lab meeting, which takes place arround midday and allows you to eat lunch at the same time, which means you don't have to take time out to eat lunch. What with time taken out for lectures and supervisions (and, for me, driving lessons atm) I really don't like taking an 'extra' hour for lunch.

Also people tend to be more awake if they are allowed to eat as well.

 
At 2:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know you're not making up the early AM Saturday lab meetings because I'm in such a lab. This is the most pointless meeting, too, as we have the EXACT same meeting on Wednesday mornings. These Wednesday and Saturday meetings are scheduled so that we can update the boss with our data and future plans.

Once, someone in the lab suggested to the boss that the Saturday meetings are redundant (how much extra data are you going to have on Saturday that you didn't have on Wednesday?). In response to this suggestion, the boss countered that we could possibly cancel the Wednesday meetings, but not the Saturday ones.

Anyway, it totally screws up our weekends. In the past, when I worked in other labs, I would work weekends, anyway, but the weekends were also when I would like to catch up on sleep and get some house work done. Now, I can only "sleep in" on Sundays and most of my house work has to be done on that day, too.

We're pretty sure that the boss holds these early morning lab meetings to "encourage" people to stay at lab all day Saturdays. The boss is ALWAYS walking around the lab, checking to see who is there or not, even on Saturdays and Sundays. It's easy for him to do this as he is older (the kids have left home) and his wife takes care of everything else for him. It is virtually impossible to have much of a social life, and most of the time I feel like I'm working in an academic sweatshop.

 
At 11:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In my old lab the day and time would change every semester based on the grad students' class and TA-ing schedules and the professor's and postdocs' teaching schedules. That was the only consideration. Some semseters the meetings have been 8AM on monday other semesters it's been 5 PM on Friday (yes, that's right). Other considerations like whether it would be "efficient" or not, or whether people have to leave to pick up kids from school or not, were not even considered. That may have been because we had a very large group so we couldn't possibly take these things into consideration for everyone so as a result it was not considered at all for anyone and the only 'fair' thing was to go by absolute schedule conflicts related to teaching and classes, things that could not be re-scheduled.

 
At 9:56 AM, Anonymous call us team low drive said...

Personally I have always found lab meetings (as a grad student and now as a postdoc) a bit of a time suck, and prefer to meet one-on-one. My current mentor is smart and schedules our lab meetings for the morning on a day that is usually filled with journal clubs and seminars at other times, so we have all our disruptions on one day of the week and can actually plan experiments for the other 4 days. Even so, I find the "go around the table and update everyone on what you're doing" format to be silly in a small lab like mine; we already know this from interacting with one another or could be informed by e-mail. On the other hand, it beats the 2+ hour weekly lab meetings I endured as a grad student in which each individual's experimental methodology was discussed in excruciating detail, boring everyone else to death.

 
At 8:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's probably heresy to say that I don't think it's necessary to have lab group meetings regularly at all. why does everyone need to hear what everyone else is doing? Sure it's nice, but is it necessary on a regular basis? why not a once-a-month meeting, or a once-per-quarter meeting? The rest of communications can be done by e-mail or an ad-hoc basis as needed.

 
At 6:21 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

re: the go-around-the-table format, this works with a medium-sized lab where everyone is working on related-ish things. Not so much with tiny labs or huge labs, or if everyone's projects are wildly different.

Personally I think these are rarely useful, since they don't usually include enough information for the uninitiated, but they can provide a more efficient mechanism for technical advice exchange if people in the lab don't talk to each other (usually a sign of an unhealthy lab atmosphere, IMO).

re: why have lab meetings at all, I can say from experience it's because it can (notice I say CAN, not "DOES") help avoid duplicated efforts and identify shared problems faster.

For example, I have worked in really large labs where someone on the opposite end of the lab was struggling with a problem I had already solved, but she didn't know anyone else had ever worked on this so she didn't know to ask (and PI didn't remember I had done it, ha ha, erm, well nevermind).

In another example, everyone in the lab was having problems with Enzyme A, but nobody was talking to anyone else about it because they all assumed it was their own fault! So this didn't come out until lab meeting when were asking why experiment B hadn't been done yet and the answer came out that they were stuck and then everyone else said "hey, me too!".

So that is why lab meetings are good. PIs rarely know what everyone else is doing. But you can piss away a lot of money if everyone is busy being their own little hamster and not talking to each other (as tends to happen in larger labs with several projects).

 
At 6:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to say that most of the time, as a grad student, going to lab meetings has been a waste of time (my experience now spans 4 years). Now, group meetings are a much better idea, where groups are composed of people with a common focus. Unfortunately, some professors have very wide ranges of "interest" (not expertise), and each person can basically learn nothing practical from the other person's presentation. If this is the case, then the advisor should just have one-on-ones. On a good campus, there are PLENTY of other worthwhile meetings to go to, or that you can create.

 

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