Hiring, Firing, and Beyond: How to be an Effective Supervisor

At the Biophysical Society 60th Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, the Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women (CPOW) hosted a panel discussion called Hiring, Firing, and Beyond: How to be an Effective Supervisor.

The panel included Dorothy Beckett (University of Maryland), Kelly Knee (Pfizer), Prithwish Pal (Illumina), Rohit Pappu (Washington University in St. Louis), Rajini Rao (Johns Hopkins University), and Joanna Swain (Bristol-Myers Squibb). Session organizers Sudha Chakrapani (Case Western Reserve University), Gabriela Popescu (University at Buffalo), and Marina Ramirez-Alvarado (Mayo Clinic), facilitated the discussion, which is summarized below.

Panel members stressed that populating the lab with talented, creative, and hard-working trainees is critical to any PI’s success. Whether looking to hire students or postdocs, it is essential to start with a detailed and accurate description of the position. This helps you as the PI to focus on the most important characteristics of the person you are looking for; it also helps applicants to self-select. For a graduate student, highlight techniques the advanced techniques to be used; for a postdoctoral position, highlight opportunities for additional training and career development. Once you are satisfied with the description, send it to colleagues who may know good candidates, and add it to your website. Placing ads in magazines like Science and Nature generate many responses, but many will be irrelevant.

Once you have identified a few interested applicants, you are faced with the challenge of determining who will best fit in with your lab environment and culture. If you have a rotation system for students at your university, use your rotations wisely. Spend time in the first two weeks with the student talking about what question he/she should be looking to answer, rather than the everyday minutiae of the position. Let them know your working style and that of your lab members. Watch, assess, and monitor how the student fits in and adds to the lab.

If you do not have the luxury of time with a potential trainee, ask behavioral questions in your interviews. One prompt to give applicants is, “Tell me about a time you had to deliver something by a certain time and it did not go well.” Let them tell the story and keep asking questions as they talk.

Plan for candidates to spend time with both senior and junior members of the lab so that you can evaluate how they will interact with both; ask your team members for their evaluation of the candidate.

Another challenge you will face as the lab director, is to set boundaries around work schedules. It is helpful to keep in mind that productivity does not always correlate with a magic number of hours spent working in the lab, even if that’s where data are collected and knowledge discovered! Some students can be very productive with a 9-to-5 schedule; whereas others may hang in the lab constantly without accomplishing much. Put more weight on the results of their work than the number of hours they are working.

You may find that a dedicated student has difficulty with a particular task. Hopefully you can help them to overcome the difficulty. Remember that they do not have the necessary experience and may lack perspective; be patient and curious. Start by giving the student small tasks and evaluate how proficient and efficient they are in accomplishing them; this will give you an idea of the roadblock they are facing. Some students have “experiment-phobia” and talk themselves out of taking action; give them license to have things not work out right away. Others feel that they need to be perfect and spend too much time on inconsequential aspects of the work, or proceed at an exceedingly slow pace to avoid mistakes. Emphasize to them that it is okay to fail by telling stories of your own mistakes. This will help them realize that their mistakes can be fixed and are not the end of the world. Give the students a checklist of things that could have gone wrong so that they can try to figure issues out on their own before bringing you in. This will give them a greater sense of ownership over their experiments.

It is of paramount importance to make your expectations clear from the beginning and to hold people accountable to these. If a trainee becomes toxic to the environment in the lab, seek a second opinion before taking irreversible actions. Talk to a senior colleague about your concerns; make sure your expectations are reasonable and have been communicated clearly. Once you are clear that the trainee is simply a poor fit, do not wait too long to ask them to leave. Yes, it is never pleasant or easy to let people go; however, keep in mind that the price your lab pays may be a steep one.

Once you made the decision to let someone go, talk to them in private. Be pragmatic rather than placing blame, and always be civil. Give them enough time to find a new position. If you are asking a postdoc to move on before his/her contract is up, make sure that you have documentation about their behavior.

In keeping a productive and positive lab environment be mindful not to transfer your stressors onto your lab members. Instead find a peer or a senior colleague to talk these over; your stress can negatively affect both your home and your lab activities. Do not put undue pressure on lab members and avoid blaming them for all that goes wrong; such a highly demanding environment may inadvertently encourage someone to fabricate data, which is every PI’s nightmare! However, also stay away from micromanaging; this is rarely well-received and often takes away from a trainee’s time at the bench.

Whether you are hiring, firing, or managing people keep in mind that trainees join your team to learn from you, to further their skills, and to discover knowledge, while like every other person they have their own challenges to overcome, and that both their aspirations and difficulties are just as important as your own. Treat your team members as co-discoverers rather than employees and inspire them with your good will, patience, and enthusiasm.

Members of the panel and the audience alike agreed that being an effective supervisor requires skills that cannot be gained overnight. One must be patient, willing to learn from mistakes and seek council from a diverse network of colleagues, and aspire to move from managing trainees to truly leading a team.


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