Communication up is better than communication down

A research lab group is a complex mix of partly independent individuals of varying research levels attempting to do something new. There is usually a power and information inequity because the laboratory leader controls much of the funding, has more experience, and knows more, at least of the old stuff. But it is the younger people who do the research, may be more up to date on a lot of ideas and methods, may have their own funding, and certainly need to be in charge as much as possible of their own research. So how do the older people guide the younger ones without inhibiting the creativity, inspiration, and drive that comes from owning your own project?

Susanne DiSalvo

Susanne DiSalvo

One way is to have as much information as possible flow up from the student or postdoc to the professor, rather than the other way around. We professors can make our grant proposals and ideas available to students, but let the students choose what they want to do within that sphere. We should be available for conversation as much as possible to guide students. For it is true that no step is more crucial to get right than the original design of experiments. But let’s make sure what we have decided by receiving information after discussion from the student, rather than handing it down to them.

Yesterday a fairly new postdoc in our group, Susanne DiSalvo, sent me a summary of a recent meeting on her research. She had called the meeting, showed us her data, brought up some of the issues. We discussed the project and came to some conclusions. Her summary made it clear how she saw the meeting. This is so important, because miscommunication is so easy. I think I’ve asked for such summaries unsuccessfully in the past, so it was really great to get this volunteered.

What is the bottom line? That we need to talk often. That students should lead, calling the meeting, presenting the data and the issues, then following up with a summary. But if the student is too shy or new, then it is up to us to hold regular meetings, and to request summaries. We just can’t be too careful when it comes to designing and conducting research. Frequent communication is essential.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Collaborating, Experimental design, Group leadership and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Communication up is better than communication down

  1. It seems a long time ago now, but in our dissertation work, once the initial proposal was found to be sound, the professor made few, but essential comments.

    One comment on pushing the student is that in most business roles, no one will push the person to make a report, or answer to a customer. The first time a boss or colleague will know about it is when the situation has already got out of hand.

    Being a self starter, and confident in oneself is essential.

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