Do you have a lab philosophy?

Do you have a lab philosophy? By “lab philosopy”, I mean a formal, written philosophy that you share with lab members (and, perhaps, prospective lab members) that lays out what they can expect of you and what you expect of them? And, if you have one, is it online?

The most well done philosophy I’ve seen comes from the neuroscience lab of Kay Tye. She clearly put a lot of thought and effort into it, and it’s an impressive document. Some people may disagree with some of the specifics – indeed, there was lots of discussion on twitter about some of the specifics several months ago, and she appears to have updated it based on that dialogue. But, regardless of whether you agree with everything it says, it is clearly very good in terms of laying out a set of expectations for all members in the lab.

The discussion surrounding Tye’s philosophy statement, combined with emailing with prospective students for my lab, got me wondering if it would be useful to write up a philosophy statement for my lab. I tried finding ones online for ecologists, but couldn’t find any. (I did, however, find this information for prospective grad students on Andrew Read’s page, which is certainly a clear – and entertaining, in my opinion – statement of what he expects of his students.) A few people said on twitter that they have them (one of which is available via dropbox), but don’t have them posted on their webpage.

The challenge, of course, is that writing such a document is very difficult. Getting the content and tone correct would be really hard and take up a huge amount of time, I think. Instead, I’ve found that I end up pointing prospective students to some of my blog posts that address things that they ask about (this one on system-based research is probably the one I referred the most prospective students to this year; my post on the importance of working efficiently – rather than huge hours – might be one that comes up often in the future). Though my blog posts leave out other very important things that students should know before joining the lab, such as:

I would also need to include the most important lesson I teach people in my lab, which is that you should not hyphenate adverbs. Totally-unnecessary. 😉

Does your lab have a formal, written lab philosophy? Is it shared online and/or with prospective lab members? Do you think there’s value in having a written lab philosophy? I’m especially interested in hearing from grad students and postdocs about whether they do/would find such a document valuable.

19 thoughts on “Do you have a lab philosophy?

  1. Hmm…can you talk a little more about what you’d want a written lab philosophy to accomplish Meg? I have a letter on my website I ask prospective grad students to read ( It’s kind of like what Andrew Read has, although not as entertaining. I have it for a couple of related purposes:

    -To get prospective grad students to do their homework before they first contact me. Hopefully those who aren’t a good fit will realize that after they read my letter, and so weed themselves out (that certainly seems to be what Andrew is hoping for!) And hopefully the remaining ones will send me an informative introductory letter, so that I can get to know them more quickly.

    -To help prospective grad students get to know me. Explain what sort of science I do, let them know that I expect them to do question-driven (rather than application-driven) science, that I’m open to them working in systems other than my own, the level of independence I expect, how I usually interact with students on a day-to-day basis, that I won’t put my name on their papers just because I’m their supervisor, etc.

    I confess I’m unsure how effective it is, as I don’t know that many prospective students read it before contacting me (though if they clearly haven’t, I reply by asking them to read it).

    But I guess I’ve never thought of this as a “lab philosophy”, though I suppose you could call it that. It’s certainly not a Mission Statement or Vision Statement or anything like that! At least, I don’t think it is, and even if it is I’d never call it that. 🙂 And the linked examples don’t really seem to me like Mission or Vision Statements either. Chris Buddle’s for instance is just a paragraph summarizing and motivating the sort of work he does. Which is great, everybody should have such a paragraph on their website, and I think most people do these days. But I just don’t think of that as a “Mission Statement” or “Vision Statement”. I mean, why does a simple statement of what you do and why you do it need a special name?

    I dunno, maybe I’m just getting hung up on terms like “Mission Statement”? I confess I cringe whenever I hear terms like “Mission Statement”, they sound like business school management-speak to me. And every business example I’ve ever seen is just a bunch of empty jargon.

  2. On a related idea, I did once write out a document explaining how I thought authorship (vs. acknowledgement) should be determined, both in terms of activities of my lab, and collaborations with others. It was great, and it was very difficult to write — on the one hand, I wanted it to be concrete, and on the other I wanted to have flexibility and the authority to keep someone off that I thought was slacking (without seeming arbitrary, or encouraging doing the minimum to qualify for authorship). There is also a tension between authorship as a consequence of contributing to part of the project, and as a responsibility for the whole thing. I think there might be a similar tensions in a lab philosophy.

  3. I think there’s a big difference between the mission statement, which is a kind of raison d’être, and a lab philosophy, which I see as being a statement of expectations for all members of the lab (including the PI). My lab and I crafted a mission statement about a year ago and it has been useful, though the most useful part remains the conversation we had while putting it together, not the fact of having a mission statement on the lab webpage.

    I would very much like to have a ‘philosophy’ or ‘expectations’ document to share with potential and incoming students. You’ve inspired me to start to think about what its structure might be and what topics I want it to cover. I

    I think writing it could be very interesting and meaningful if crafted by current members of the lab. I can imagine that doing this as a group would lead to some very interesting conversations. This would also help reduce the time it would take one PI to write it solo.

    • Good point that there’s a big difference between a document setting out expectations and responsibilities for all lab members, and a document explaining “here’s what we do and why we do it”. And good point as well that talking about what we do and why we do it might actually be more useful than whatever document results.

  4. For some time I’ve had an online “Lab Guide for New Undergraduate Researchers” (undergrads being the only members of my lab besides me): I don’t know that it deserves to be called a Lab Philosophy, and it’s certainly not a Mission Statement — it mostly covers logistical matters.
    I’m aware of another faculty member — a full professor — who had an online (but password-protected) guide for his grad students and postdocs that was somewhat similar to mine, but more detailed regarding expectations. I recall it specifying that they needed to work 56-58 hours per week: 10 hours per day Monday through Friday, plus 6-8 hours on Saturday or Sunday. I was a bit taken aback by that, but if that’s what his expectations were, I guess it’s good that he stated them clearly….

      • I know this particular prof fairly well, and I suspect that he has a pretty good handle on his own work hours. The extent to which he should impose his own hours on his trainees is another issue, of course.

      • I think it’s fine to say, “I have high expectations, I’m looking for people who will be really productive”. But I think it’s better to do that via something like the entertaining statement that Meg linked to in the post. Focus on outputs, not inputs like hours worked.

    • And yes, it is good that the expectations are clearly stated. So that sensible prospective students can read them and go “Ok, this prof either has unreasonable expectations (expecting people to work that much for extended periods), or silly expectations (expecting people to show their face and appear to be working more than they actually are). Either way, I’m going to go work with someone else, since there are plenty of successful, high-achieving scientists who don’t have unreasonable or silly expectations of their students.”

  5. Pingback: Friday recommended reads #19 | Small Pond Science

  6. As a current grad student who recently went through the process of finding a supervisor, I found that labs with clear, compelling and current mission statements and/ or philosophies were often the ones that made it through the process of elimination.

    Choosing a lab is very important but there are dozens or hundreds to consider, and the prospective student (ie. me) has not enough time to sort through them. What it comes down to is making a big list, then a short list, then taking the time to craft 3 or 4 targeted emails. Even if the student does not agree 100% with the philosophy at least they know what to expect and I think that helps justify transferring that lab to the next list.

    My 2 cents, thanks for posting!

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