What’s the ideal size for an ecology lab group?

So, what’s the ideal size for an ecology lab group? Or maybe better, what’s the ideal size for you? Whether you’re a PI, a postdoc, a grad student, or whatever?

For me, the ideal would be something like 3-4 grad students, a postdoc, a technician, and a couple of undergraduates. I’ve never had this ideal, though I’ve gotten close. Support for technicians and postdocs is hard to come by in Canada, so I haven’t had either for years. But until recently, I had 4 grad students of varying levels of experience, plus 1-2 undergrads, which I consider just about perfect. Enough people so that you have a “critical mass”, a true group.* But not so many that I can’t have weekly one-on-one meetings with every student, or let students just drop into my office whenever they want. Plus, as a grad student, that was about the size of the lab I was in, and it was a great experience. And my students seem to like it too. I know I’ve attracted one or two grad students in part because they chose my lab over larger ones where they were likely to see less of their supervisors.

But of course, these preferences reflect my preference for “shopkeeper science“. They also reflect the constraints imposed by funding realities. There are very few sources to which I could go for NSF-sized project-based grants, and so it’s probably just as well that I’d consider a bigger lab group to be too big. I’d have to leave too much of the mentoring of grad students to postdocs, and too much of the mentoring of undergrads to grad students. I remember years ago a grad student from the very large lab of a very famous ecologist said to me that he basically got to meet his supervisor one on one once a year for an hour. I don’t think he was kidding! He said it was always the best hour of the year, a tremendously productive meeting. But still–one hour per year?! I know this lab was filled with really sharp people at all levels, though, and it’s not like the student I spoke too was miserable about his situation and thinking of quitting or anything. So that model can work, I think. But I doubt I’d be able to operate such a large lab effectively, even if I had the money to support that many people. I think I’d feel a bit like I was free-riding on a self-organized army of people without doing my share. And conversely, maybe people who run big labs would struggle to run small ones? I dunno.

What’s your ideal lab group size? Why?

*There’s a very funny line in the play The Lieutenant of Inishmore, a black comedy about dissident Irish Republican Army splinter groups: “That’s not a splinter group! That’s just two people!” For “splinter” read “lab”. 🙂

11 thoughts on “What’s the ideal size for an ecology lab group?

  1. My ideal lab size would be 5-6 graduate students and 3-4 undergraduates. I would love a postdoc and a tech, but that just isn’t happening on this round of NSERC funding Also, given the realities we face with dwindling NSERC funds, even having 5-6 graduate students (3 PhD and 2-3 MSc) is unlikely to happen unless at least half are funded through something other than my lab.

    I currently have 2 PhD students, 1 MSc student, 5 honours students doing independent projects, plus another 2 3rd year students doing independent projects, and 3 work-study students. Yes, that means I have 3 grads and 10 undergrads. It has been a fun year, but a crazy year too. My graduate students are doing an amazing job mentoring the undergrads, but their load is way too high. In future I can’t take on so many undergrads; I realize it and so do my graduate students.

    Here’s hoping we can shift the balance to more graduate students and fewer undergraduate students. My question is how? Graduate students cost money (and are worth every penny ten times over). Undergraduate students don’t officially cost money (but they do in terms of time, lab supplies, space). We either need to have more gradaute students funded or to increase the size of our NSERC grants and other funding opportunities to be able to work at peak performance.

  2. When I started my PhD, there were 5 postdocs in the lab, which has been reduced to 1 over the past 2 years. As a graduate student, I think the postdocs are invaluable sources of advice on research and on graduate student life. 3-4 graduate students sounds optimal, but I would argue for between 2-3 postdocs (if funding permits).

    • “2-3 postdocs (if funding permits)”

      And I’d like my free pony to be a palomino! 🙂

      I actually agree that it’s better to have 2-3 postdocs rather than 1. But I think when I was describing my own ideal, I subconsciously discounted the possibility of 2-3 postdocs as *so* unrealistic for me that I didn’t even consider it as an ideal. Subconsciously, it must’ve felt too much like wishing for a free pony. 🙂

      • “Don’t be afraid of the space between your dreams and reality. If you can dream it, you can make it so.”
        — Ralph Waldo Emerson

        I believe in you! You’ll get that free pony and the 2+ postdocs.

      • God grant me the serenity
        to accept the things I cannot change;
        courage to change the things I can;
        and wisdom to know the difference.

        –Reinhold Niebuhr

    • Perhaps our new motto should be “Dynamic Ecology: the only ecology blog where commenters quote Emerson.”

      I could actually see “commenters quote Emerson” being a reliable marker for a good science blog. If your commenters do stuff like quote Emerson, it’s a safe bet that they’re pretty widely-read, smart, thoughtful, and other good things. 🙂

  3. Like Jeremy I think that the ideal lab should have a post-doc, a technician and in my case 6 PhD students, so two per year, plus 3-4 MSc students and an equal number of undergraduates. This has only ever happened once in my 32 year PI career. The vagaries of funding means that you have to have a number of applications in process at any one time and sometimes they all come off, or in the case of my former institution, Imperial College, the situation arose that as a result of staff recruitment policy, the number of suitable MSc and UG project supervisors in my area was far out-numbered by the number of students wanting to work in that area and one memorable year I found myself in charge of 6 PhD students, 10 MSc students and 13 UG students. My weekly coffee with cake group meetings got quite expensive. It was rather hectic but I think we all enjoyed ourselves and as all the students were bright and enthusiastic there were no major catastrophes. I am however, eternally grateful to my PhD students who shouldered a lot more responsibility that I guess they signed up for.

  4. Well, if we’re going with what we want but will never happen: 2 technicians, 2 postdocs, 2-3 grad students, and 5-6 undergrads. More realistic is 1 technician, 1 postdoc, 2-3 grad students, and 4-5 undergrads.

  5. At Calgary we once interviewed a candidate for a microbiology position who was a postdoc in a $200 million lab! The PI had *20* postdocs and *20* grad students. Plus lots of technicians etc. I cannot even imagine. The PI must run it the way a CEO runs a mid-sized company.

  6. Pingback: How selective are you in choosing prospective graduate students? | Dynamic Ecology

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