Is it important to have a lab contract for undergraduates?

DSC05936The joy of undergraduates in the lab and the pride of seeing them succeed can be greatly diminished when they do not perform as expected. You may have plates and cultures all ready only to have an unexplained absence. On the undergraduate’s side, they may arrive at the lab and have no idea what to do or who should help them. Everyone seems so busy. What to do to have a successful experience for all concerned?

A lab group is a complex entity, not as cooperative as an organism, but tighter than a society. People come into the group from very different backgrounds, abilities, goals, and cultures. They may come from linear-active, multiactive, or reactive cultures, if you buy the Lewis categorization. This will make them respond even to direct instructions very differently. How to we efficiently make this work?

A lot of people recommend the lab contract. I suppose this approach is very much linear-active based, but it is a good idea to spell things out. The problem with it is that scientific creativity and willingness to follow orders are not good bedfellows. We want the students to be safe and to be responsible to each other and to us, but we do not want to stifle them. So we decided they should write the lab contract for undergraduates.DSC05938

The ten students broke into three groups to come up with expectations for the three levels that affect them, themselves and other undergraduates, their direct mentors and others in the lab, and the lab heads. We gave them  Mohamed Noor‘s book and both of Kathy Barker‘s books to look at to help stimulate their thinking. Meanwhile we perused the very thoughtful book on Lab Dynamics. Each group had a scribe. After about 20 minutes we got back together and each group presented one of the three levels. In conversation the other group members added ideas they had. One of the groups even had different responsibilities for me and Dave! At the end of the class, we gathered their writing and we will compile it.DSC05930

Next time we’ll send out the combined instructions for further revision. Then we’ll print it out and have the relevant parties sign their agreements, with food, of course. I think this collaborative way of arriving at a contract is much more effective than providing them with one in advance. I view it partly as a way of educating young scientists on the obligations all around.

Should we also have a contract for the grad students, postdocs, and technicians? I’m inclined to say no, but I could be wrong. After all, we do need to be clear on some important things like what they can take when they leave to their own labs and what happens to orphaned projects. The main thing is that lab culture is not something that just occurs. You can influence it.


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 Mentoring, Undergraduates, Your lab group and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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