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”. 🙂