What to do at lab meetings?

Lab meetings are a pretty standard part of academic life, but exactly what is done at lab meetings tends to vary between groups. While much of what we do at lab meetings is pretty standard, I also know from discussions with others that some of the things we do at my lab meetings are less common, and that we don’t do some things that other labs do a lot. I decided it would be worth writing out what we do for lab meetings, and using this as a jumping off point for finding out what others do (or wish they did).

Here are some of the things we do at lab meetings:

1. Discuss new(ish) papers: this is what we do most often, and is a classic lab meeting strategy. When we do these, it’s almost always that a single person is in charge of leading the discussion of the paper. I know that other labs will sometimes split up the paper into sections (e.g., someone has to present the methods related to field work, another the stats approaches, etc.), but we haven’t done that. Sometimes, we’ve specified two particular subcategories of this type of lab meeting:

  • especially challenging papers that we need to really struggle through (which is pretty self-explanatory); and
  • “popcorn” lab meetings: the goal is to get the chattier lab members (including me!) to not dominate the meeting. This was named by some lab members at Georgia Tech, but no one in the end was exactly sure how the name started. The general idea, though, is that we go around the room with each person either asking a question about the paper (which gets written on the board) or answering a question that someone previously asked. At the end of someone’s turn, they pass the floor to a different person by saying “Popcorn [next person’s name]”. It’s a great way to get everyone to take part in a relatively non-intimidating way. And we usually make popcorn for these meetings, because why not?😉

2. Practice talk: Another lab meeting classic, where someone practices a talk that they’re going to be giving (e.g., at a meeting). We do this fairly regularly in my lab.

3. Ethics: we’ve done a fair number of lab meetings at which we discussed issues related to ethics in science. This started at Georgia Tech, where we did in-lab Responsible Conduct of Research training. We’ve used a variety of readings for this, the most common being the series of Dudycha and Geedey case studies, paired with various blog posts on the topic.

4. Stats Boot Camp: We spent a summer having stats boot camps, which were definitely useful and are probably things I should revive. But, once there’s been turnover in personnel, it’s a little harder to have everyone on the same page. But it was great for having everyone get up to speed on techniques we should probably all know about (e.g., model II regression [pdf]).

5. Presentation of new data: we sometimes have people present new data that they’ve collected and are working on analyzing, but this has been less common. I’m not sure why.

6. Miscellaneous topics: we also routinely cover different topics that are maybe less standard fare for lab meeting, but that have worked really well. This includes:

  • Elevator pitch: This summer, we worked on elevator pitches over two lab meetings. First, we worked on an elevator pitch that we could give to another scientist (say, someone we just met at a meeting, or, for the undergrads, one of their professors). Next, we worked on an elevator pitch for the general public. This is something that I found quite interesting, and plan on doing a whole post on (when I magically find the time).
  • Non-academic careers: so far, we’ve focused more just on the data regarding numbers of PhDs per year vs. tenure track positions per year. I’d like to do more in terms of how to prepare for non-academic positions, but haven’t had any good ideas about how to do that. (We might use some from this comment, which had great resources. Further suggestions appreciated!)
  • Publishing: this tends to be a spinoff from another topic, but we sometimes discuss the publication process, reviewing, and things along those lines at lab meetings.

Which of the above things we do at any one lab meeting tends to be haphazard. We have a sign up sheet, and whoever is signed up picks what we do. And, if no one is signed up, I either just pick a paper, or get an idea from a lab member. (My postdoc Cat Searle often has really creative ideas, so I tend to steal hers!)

Another aspect is that we sometimes merge with another lab for lab meeting. Sometimes this is because we’re reading a paper that would benefit from that lab group’s expertise (e.g., we did this recently when reading a new paper on Daphnia-virus interactions). Sometimes it’s because we realize another lab was going to cover a similar topic. And sometimes it’s because the labs are preparing for something similar (e.g., everyone giving practice ESA talks at one giant group meeting). But, usually, it’s just my lab group meeting on its own.

Things we don’t tend to do, but that I think could be worth trying:
1. “What I’ve been reading”: I know that a lot of labs have routine lab meetings (say, once a month) where everyone is supposed to talk briefly about a paper they read recently that they thought was good or noteworthy, and that would be of general interest to the group. This is, of course, to try to encourage everyone to stay on top of the literature. We did something sort of like this in Jeff Conner’s group meetings when I was a grad student; there, it was just a very brief part at the start of some lab meetings, rather than a whole meeting devoted to this. I do think this approach would be good, but haven’t implemented it yet.

2. “What I’ve done this month”: Another things that a lot of labs do is have people give regular presentations on their research. It seems to vary a lot in terms of how often people are expected to do this (every couple of weeks, monthly, once a semester, etc.), but the general idea is to keep everyone up-to-date on what is going on in the lab, and also to provide extra motivation to people to be productive. But doing this on a strict schedule feels forced to me. At the same time, I’ve heard that it helps keep things from slipping through the cracks, and some people thrive on this sort of deadline. (Others, of course, do not.)

3. Classic papers: Something that could be interesting would be to have everyone read a classic paper from the literature (say, Brooks and Dodson for an aquatic ecology lab). I’m not entirely sure why we don’t do this, other than simply that there are so many other things to do!

4. Book club: I also know that labs will sometimes devote a semester to reading a new, important book in their field (such as a new Princeton Monograph). But, again, we haven’t done this in my lab yet.

What do you do in your lab meetings? What do you wish you did? What do you wish your lab didn’t do at lab meetings? Do you have a set schedule or are things more haphazard?

28 thoughts on “What to do at lab meetings?

  1. This is a great post! The lab where I’m post-docing is light on lab meetings and those we do have tend to just be “Here’s my proposal seminar”. I’m trying to start a journal club similar to your Don’t Do Yet #1, except 2-3 people present a few papers with no expectation that anyone else has read them.

    It’s a great way to get quiet people to speak up (when they are ‘hosting’ they’re the only ones who know the paper), provides an opportunity to read what you like (bird papers for fun, herp papers for work), and on the flip-side, introduces a range of topics to the group.

    This kind of journal club was really great at my PhD institution but I’m not sure it’s going to work at my current place. Have you found different styles of lab meetings work better at different schools? Or because you’re the PI, you can get your lab to go along with anything?

    • Interesting question. I think the lab meeting culture was pretty similar when I was an undergrad, grad student, and postdoc. In all places, the lab meetings focused on reading recent papers or people giving practice talks. That’s probably part of why I default to those when I’m not sure what else to do. But, as a grad student at a field station (the Kellogg Biological Station), we also had joint journal clubs, readings of books, “life as an academic”, science ethics, etc. sorts of meetings and discussions. I always enjoyed those, so I’ve added those in to my lab meetings now that I’m the PI, even though those are less typical lab meeting topics.

  2. Everybody seems to be reading this but nobody seems to be commenting. So I’ll kick things off.🙂

    In my lab (until recently, 3 grad students), we mostly do #1. We establish a rota at the start of the term, and if it’s your week to lead lab group, it’s your job to pick a paper for us to read, and lead discussion on it. I’m part of the rota. As needed, we also do #2. Occasionally we do #5. And occasionally we read and comment on one another’s draft mss.

    The meetings also serve a social function; we do them late in the afternoon (usually on Fridays), and have beers. (this gets back to your post on “the little things”, I think).

    I have a small group, so I don’t feel the need to use lab meetings as a vehicle to catch everyone up on what everyone else is doing. But if I had a larger group I could definitely see doing this. A couple of years ago I visited Rees Kassen at Ottawa, who has what I think of as a pretty big group (several grad students, an undergrad, several postdocs and technicians), and he starts every lab meeting by going around the table and having everyone update the group on what they’ve been doing that week.

    Never thought of using lab group as a book club, although I guess for the right book–a really good one everyone needs and wants to read–we could. I think of that as something for grad student reading groups. Reading groups is maybe another post topic.

    To be honest, I do things the way I do them because that’s the way we did them when I was a grad student. Until recently, I’d never really thought about other things one might do in lab meetings. But I think I’m going to change that, and so thanks for sharing some ideas. In future, I want to do more to encourage everyone to chime in, and find ways to keep me from dominating the conversation. May give your “popcorn” idea a try. Maybe also give students some guidance on how to prepare for and lead an effective discussion. I also want to use more meetings for training–elevator pitches, good professional practice, ethical issues, etc.

    p.s. Actually, I think everyone should base all their lab meetings around Dynamic Ecology posts.🙂

    • Do you tend to have undergrads working in your lab? Do they come to lab meetings? I feel like my lab isn’t a particularly big lab in terms of grad students, postdocs, and technicians, but, once you add on undergrads (usually 5-6 a semester), lab meeting can be a pretty big group.

      I suspect there’s a lot of variation — both between labs and between students — in terms of whether undergrads come to lab meetings. But I know it was really valuable to me as an undergrad, and so I always encourage my undergrads to come. Of course, we can never find a time that actually works for everyone, but usually we can find a time that works for all but 1 or 2 lab members.

      • Usually my undergrads don’t come to lab meetings, if only because they’re mostly summer research assts. and we don’t have lab meetings in the summers. I think I did once have an undergrad honors student whom I invited to the lab meetings. And I currently have an honors student whom I’d invite to our lab meetings if we were having them, but at the moment I’m down to one grad student and so don’t have enough people to justify a weekly lab meeting.

        Which gets to another issue we should post on sometime. What’s the optimal lab size? Or better, what are the trade-offs involved in having a small vs. large lab?

  3. This quarter we’re reviewing each others’ manuscripts. Whoever is providing their manuscript for the week sends it to everyone the week before with questions and/or issues they’d like the group to focus on. We all send the paper back to them and discuss at the next lab meeting. I think this is related to the “Publishing” category. It is really helpful to get an hour of feedback from the whole group. We’re also reading “Shifting Baselines : The Past and the Future of Ocean Fisheries” (ed. Jeremy Jackson and several others).

    We came up with a pretty good list of books this time, but it would be awesome to have an ongoing list of books that people have read for lab meetings– perhaps this could be a poll that you host on DE!

    • Having people suggest books to read as a lab group is a great idea! It would vary, of course, between labs, but it would be really interesting to see what people are reading (or want to read). I think we’ll have to hoist this from the comments.🙂

  4. As a side note, we did “popcorn” in my Midwestern elementary school classes for reading out loud. It was the same format, where one person would read a page and then say, “Popcorn [name]”, and the new person would read the next page. I don’t have any idea why it’s called that.

  5. One of the best learning experiences I had as a grad student came from reviewing papers for publication as a lab. The advisor asked the journal for permission for a grad student co-review the paper ( I am not 100% sure if they mentioned it would be reviewed as a lab). That particular student was then responsible for leading the discussion on the paper that the whole lab would read. That student would then go through the major components of a review (What did they like about the paper, major issues, scope, minor issues). Generally the student would be responsible for initiating and sort of leading/moderating the discussion, and then after the meeting would write up the review, based on those discussions.
    This joint review process was helpful for me as a new student in many ways:
    1. Learning how to read critically rather than just taking every paper at it’s word.
    2. Identification of common mistakes in experimental design, inference, and analysis.
    3. Learning how to review a paper. It is a nice transition from observing a review, contributing to a review, leading a review, and then eventually reviewing papers on your own. Maybe not everybody needs this progression, but I really liked it.
    4. Getting over imposter syndrome (related to point 1 + 2). When I first started grad school every paper I read seemed like a work of genius. I felt out of my league, and like I could never contribute anything to the academic conversation. For example, if I read something in a publication that didn’t make sense, I just assumed that it was my fault, or I just didn’t get it. I think those lab reviews were an important step in getting over imposter syndrome. It sounds bad to say it like this, but seeing that other scientists are fallible made me more confident in my own abilities.

    I don’t know if other labs do this, or if group reviews are frowned upon in general. I hope not, because if I ever had a lab of my own I would like to have them (although I would be sure to ask the editor). A pro/con of this approach is that much more time is spent critically evaluating the relative to a typical review (~10hrs for the grad student + 3-5hrs by each additional lab member).

    • Ooh — getting over imposter syndrome would be a great topic for a lab meeting! I think we’ll have to do that with my lab group.

      In terms of reviewing manuscripts as a lab — my lab has never done that as a full lab, but I do know other labs that do that (after asking permission of the journal, of course.) I definitely think it’s good to do joint reviews with lab members, though. The way I’ve done it is, if I get a manuscript to review that looks pretty relevant to the interests of a lab member, I write the editor, ask if I can review it jointly with that lab member (so far, they have always said yes), and then do the review with that other person.

  6. I am new to being in charge of lab meetings and I am working in a different environment than I am used to. I am at a PUI and have a relatively large lab (9 undergrads – sophomores – seniors) and I am looking at various options.

    In my graduate student / postdoc days, lab meetings were mainly the PI talking about something he was interested in or a practice talk. I am trying to open things up a bit. Reading papers is a good idea, but a bit harder with the younger crowd. I spent many weeks this term working on elevator speeches (a great skill to work on as an undergrad), and a few weeks on basic topics from the lab – to get the students up to speed on what we are all working towards.

    I am excited for the future comments on this post to get some ideas. I am also thinking of trying the book club approach. I recall reading from DNA to DIversity (Carroll) when I was an undergrad during lab meetings and I thought it was really exciting at the time to read something at the forefront of the science, but more approachable than a primary article.

    • It’s interesting to hear that your lab also worked on elevator pitches! When we worked on those this summer, one goal was to help prepare our summer REUs for when they were inevitably asked “What did you do this summer?” by their professors and peers at their home institutions. Like I said, I think it worked really well.

      It definitely can be tricky to choose a paper that is interesting but accessible to everyone in the lab, and I definitely tend to look for a different kind of paper for “popcorn” lab meetings. Often it’s not the sexiest or newest paper, but, rather, is one that is a foundational paper in the area or one that uses a similar approach to a project one of the undergrads is working on. (This means that we sometimes end up reading the same paper every couple of years as students turnover in the lab, but I think that’s fine.) I agree that blog posts (not just by us😉 ) can work well as readings, too.

  7. Something we usually do is encourage suggestions about “What we would like to have in the lab” – machine that goes ‘Ping’, new Mac Pro, automatic bean counter, lab dishwasher, etc, etc. Also we usually check that new lab members or undergrad interns (as well as the long term inmates) are up to speed with safety issues associated with our lab and field work.

    • Yes! We did a lab meeting last semester that focused on making sure everyone understood why some of those weird little details in the protocols are so important (either for safety reasons or for ensuring that the science is properly done).

      And, in terms of machines that go ping!, there’s this #montypythonscience contribution:

  8. I’m just starting with lab meetings for my new lab (2 so far). It’s only undergrads for now (grads starting in march, hopefully a postdoc down the line); so far we had a textbook chapter discussion, which prompted two student led seminars about chapter topics that were particularly challenging for them. My idea is to have a short discussion/seminar with a rotation of discussion leaders/presenters, followed by a round table of “what are you working on” (including me) and general lab management talk.

    What about frequency? How often do you hold lab meetings? Weekly? Monthly? Irregular?

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  14. I enjoyed reading your post! Thanks🙂

    We do our lab meetings weekly and a ‘journal club’ every two weeks. But we have been flexible with the journal club since everyone can’t always make it. I think flexibility is necessary, otherwise people feel ‘tied to it’ and it could dampen the discussions. A solo journal club is also not fun😉

    At our journal club we do ‘cake and tea’ (even though we are not located in Britain!) – but now I am certainly going to spice it up with some popcorn and beers!

    In general I steal many ideas from your ‘Dynamic Ecology’ posts. Thanks alot!

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