A research lab in psychology is the general term for a team of students, scholars, and colleagues working together under a principal investigator’s leadership.
The fall term brings new graduate students, visiting scholars, post-docs, and undergraduate research volunteers into research labs. Integrating new people into the lab and re-incorporating returning students and collaborators creates new issues. It is important to establish a culture quickly so the work can be done efficiently, cooperatively, and joyfully.
It is easy to assume that returning members of the lab remember the key features of the lab culture and that new members will somehow magically absorb key values. In the hustle of day-to-day work, values and culture can be forgotten or lost. Labs can easily find themselves adrift, unhappy, unproductive, and stagant. The difference between a positive student experience and a miserable one is often the culture of the research lab.
There is nothing that replaces the modeling of values by the principal investigator. In addition, these values must be explicit, implemented, evaluated, and rewarded. Building a culture is a long-term process. However, a quick overview of the credo of the lab can be a starting place for setting expectations for all lab work. Below are ten values for establishing a productive lab culture.
Strive to become a professional, but do not forget to be a human.
Work every single day to become a useful professional. That is, conscientious, independent, skilled, knowledgeable, ethical, and courageous, but realize that everyone will fall short some days. Always focus on being better tomorrow than you were today. Lab members will never have a problem with me if they do something every day to improve.
You will need to trust that I define my success by your success.
My job is to prepare students as professionals. I know what it takes to be a successful psychologist, and the more successful members are, the more successful I am. I welcome challenges. A reasonable question lab members should ask me frequently is, “How will this task help me achieve my professional goals?”
Consider mental and physical well-being a central part of graduate education. Lab members should feel comfortable discussing issues and concerns. Long-term development as a person and as a professional requires attention to physical and emotional well-being. At the first sign of any issues, let me know, and we will develop a plan. In addition, look after peers. We are a team and need to take care of each other. Although it may be obvious, harassment, sabotage, creating a hostile environment, or any other behaviors detrimental to the team’s wellness, our clients or individuals will result in removal from the lab.
Write it down, or it did not happen.
Writing is an essential component of graduate school. Any thoughts, ideas, findings, notions, and other contributions are only real if they are written. This is the most effective way to remember, communicate, and create a trail of thinking that will have an important influence on open research and clinical practice. Writing in a lab diary is also a mechanism of accountability and minimizing misunderstandings.
We all do better when we all do better.
There is inevitable competition for authorship, grants, fellowships, and the time and attention of senior members. However, this lab is a team. The success of any one of us reflects on all. Share credit, be generous with authorship, listen to the ideas of others, be genuinely happy for peers’ success, and assist others’ work. When this becomes a habit, everyone benefits.
Do more. Everything takes three times longer than you expect.
Doing more than the bare minimum is an essential part of professionalism. In addition, it is nearly impossible to plan time and work accurately. No matter how much time is devoted and planned for a specific task, the number of hours can be multiplied by three. Just achieving minimum expectations will require much more time and energy than expected.
Attention to Detail
I completely dismiss the concept that “idea people” are important and effective parts of the lab. Ideas are only important if paired with an intense work habit, focus on implementation, and single-minded attention to detail. The focus on detail will certainly annoy most lab members at some point. Attention to detail is the difference between a vague idea floating in the ether and high-quality research and clinical practice.
Too often, students and professionals gloss over ethics because they believe they are good people who would never do anything evil or wrong. Ethical violations are not usually due to bad actors. Ethical violations are typically committed by good people who are tired, emotionally overwhelmed, stressed, overloaded with work, up against timelines, or ignorant of the exact ethical standards and procedures to be followed. Ethical guidelines need to be memorized, automatized, and second nature.
Invest in Preparation
Writing activity is the tip of the iceberg. For every hour of writing, there are at least two hours of planning and four hours of reading (not to mention: seemingly endless hours of data collection and analysis). Be prepared for every meeting by having questions or information to present. Investment in preparation allows for better scholarship, reduced stress, clearer thinking, and improved overall productivity and success.
Develop Productive Habits
Inspiration comes and goes, but the habit remains. To be an effective worker in the research lab, an aspirational goal should be to read 100 pages daily and write 1000 words daily. This will take time, practice, and training. Whatever habits are developed, focus on being the most productive person you can be. Positive habits create professionalism.
Developing a culture is far more than ten simplistic and vague ideas. This only becomes a culture when these ten points are modeled and lived. However, communicating goals and expectations is a good way to begin.