Consider These Things Before Setting Up Your Lab

Strategies for setting up an independent research lab

If you’re a new academician launching an independent research lab, it’s no secret the key to your success is focus. Concentrating on your goals is imperative for achieving a promotion or tenure.

To reach that aim, there are three things tenure committees weigh heavily that you should remember. Discover what kind of research your institution considers impactful and important, and understand the criteria that they will use to define success. Seek out funding. Set your sights on becoming a valued member of your field and institution. Make these objectives your priorities for your first five years.

Largely, your lab resembles a small business, and you’re the business owner – an entrepreneur. You must secure seed money to support your work. Your staff are your employees. And, you must market yourself, staying proactive and driven.

Being a boss, however, isn’t always natural. While developing a great hypothesis or novel experiments can be challenging, effectively managing and mentoring others can be a bigger task. Academic researchers don’t often receive formal managerial training, and the learning curve is steep. Consequently, most people stumble.

But, there are a few things you, as junior faculty, can do to smoothly and efficiently establish your lab.

Transition: Before launching an independent lab, tie up loose ends with your postdoctoral work. Close out dangling research, and finish papers with your mentor’s name on them – tenure committees are unlikely to consider these because they don’t demonstrate your independent research. Consider changing geographical locations. Don’t hesitate, however, to consult your mentor on effective ways to strengthen your independence. A successful transition to independence from your postdoctoral mentor should include candid discussions and mutually agreed-upon plans that define which projects you can focus on for your new research program. 

Set Up: Don’t make yourself the center of your lab. Surround yourself with people who have talents you don’t. Set a high bar and carefully evaluate who you hire, but look for researchers and staff members who work harder than you, who have accomplished much, and who excel in areas you don’t.

Be prepared, however, even with meticulous planning, that you will make hiring mistakes. It’s possible to side-step many issues, though, if you craft a vision for your lab and build a team comprised of differing – but complementary – personalities. Write out your vision, including what your lab will do, your goals, your strategies, and your expectations.  Everyone in your lab should understand the unique role they play, and the expectations that you have for them.  

Make your vision statement specific, and share it with your staff, keeping them on task. If someone deviates from that vision, don’t hesitate to replace him or her – you only have five years to achieve the required level of productivity. In those situations, talk with your human resources consultants about how to navigate the process because your team will, ultimately, be better if everyone is on board with achieving your mission in the same way.

Getting Established: Networking within your institution is critical to establishing yourself. In an effort to get to know others and familiarize yourself with available resources, strive to meet at least one new person a week. Not only will it help you learn about the institution’s culture, but it will also show you how you’ll be expected to assimilate and will help you identify potential mentors, particularly ones outside your department.

Additionally, networking will help you identify ways to contribute to your university while building on your strengths. Consider running a department seminar series or a department research retreat to learn about your colleagues.

Figure Out NIH: Understanding the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is critical. Talk with your department chair and mentors, identify your funders and program officers, and make phone calls. If calls go unanswered, design your research program to match NIH program officers’ portfolios and new areas of emphasis for Institutes.  Volunteer as an ad hoc member of a study section in order to get practical insights into what makes grants successful, or not.