Welcome to LeafSpring, an anonymized advice blog by a group of scientists on the tenure track. Send your questions to leafspring.labcarpentry@gmail.com

Sep 08, 2016

How do I foster a supportive lab family?

Dear Leafspring,

Some of the best times I had as a trainee were when I felt part of a ‘lab family’. How do I foster a fun, social and supportive atmosphere in my own year-old, small (me + 2 grad students), but growing (2 more students next year, hopefully a postdoc) group without coming across as inappropriate/overly friendly/trying to force things?

Yours, Trying to be professional

P.S. This was inspired by this blog post: http://lettersfromgradschool.org/dont-check-your-optimism-at-the-door/

Dear TTBP,

We had a number of thoughts on thinking about a lab as a family. While this seems like a nice idea, we had some concerns that a family might not be precisely the right metaphor. Perhaps thinking of a lab as a team, which still has camaraderie and is acting with a shared purpose, would be a better fit. This puts you in the role of a team captain and/or coach. So how can you encourage teambuilding without harming your ability to lead?

There are a number of steps that we recommend to make sure that your social and work environments are places that are safe and friendly.

  • Keep lab events low- or alcohol free.
  • Post a code of conduct and make it clear that you take it seriously.
  • This isn't always possible depending on circumstances, but many events - particularly those outside of work hours - should be open to family, friends and partners.
  • Make it clear when events are optional and make sure that most events outside of work hours are optional.

There are some group-building opportunities that work well for small groups:

  • For social outings, find partner labs that work on similar things (or have similar attitudes) and invite both groups. This may involve some administrative headaches - e.g. PIs taking turns paying or splitting costs fractionally.
  • Cultivate a social media presence (a shared blog or some such) so that people can present a team perspective.
  • Make it clear that members of the lab and partners/families are a part of the team.
  • Try to get together regularly for social interactions during work hours. Some of us do a 'fika' and others the bonus.ly service for peer recognition to schedule during-work social interactions.
  • Organize events that go beyond the confines of the lab. Perhaps lab outings for hikes, etc. Make it clear that you're looking for events that more people can participate in, and consider whether or not everyone can participate in what you're planning.

Here are some social outings that we've done before:

  • Happy hour - PI pays for appetizers and one drink for each individual (non-transferrable).
  • Lunch at a nearby restaurant.
  • Group hike.
  • Group paintball. This can sting - make sure people know what they are getting into.
  • A board game night. PI may or may not provide a 'grant' for food ($20 cash) if the lab requests it for a game night once a month. Consider carefully whether or not you want to attend. Not attending may give the team time to bond without your presence.
  • Group attendance at a local sports team game.
  • Picnic lunch at a local park.

Finally we have a few communication recommendations:

  • Keep an in-lab list that has some non-work rooms for chatting. Some of us use Slack for this which provides a #random channel, while others use email.
  • Be aware of authority barriers and decide what you want to do about them. Do you want to keep an edge of formality going, or do you want to lower those barriers? It will depend on where the barriers and authority levels stand now and where you want them to be :).
  • Discuss your own job with your team. Outline your thoughts on grants and papers and discuss your larger concerns and worries. You don't have to be an impervious leader standing against the world. You can be human too.
  • When you have to provide negative performance feedback, do so in a formal as opposed to social setting. Make sure that you communicate that the discussion is solely about work and not personal.

So TTBP, we believe thinking of the group as a team instead of a family is a more useful metaphor. We hope these ideas help you create an environment that brings your team together.

Sincerely, Leafspring

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Aug 17, 2016

How can preprints help my career?

Dear Leafspring,

I see discussion from senior biologists about the benefits of preprints. As a faculty member just starting my lab in a biological science, will preprints help me or hurt me?

Unsure on Preprints

Dear UP,

We can't tell you yet if preprints will help your career or harm it. We do think that there are substantial benefits to preprints in the overall process of science. We'll initially cover some baseline information about preprints, and then we'll talk about how, in our own experience, a new lab can maximize their benefits from the preprints that they post.

Why are preprints coming on to the scene now in biology?

  • Problem: The publication process today takes longer now than ever before with an increase in the number of supplemental figures, supplemental figure panels and number of authors included per manuscript. This slows the communication of data, increases time required for training and delays evidence of productivity required for grants/promotion.
  • Solution: Preprints are manuscripts posted for free on servers with open access for the world-wide scientific community and the public. They are given a digital object identifier (DOI) and are citable.
  • History: The arXiv (pronounced archive) is a preprint server for the Physics, Mathematics and quantitative science communities started in 1991 by Paul Ginsparg. It has long been in use in these communities for the rapid communication of scientific articles along side traditional journal publication. Additional preprint servers have been developed more recently to serve the life sciences such as Peer J Preprints, F1000 Research and the BioRxiv.

What are some benefits of preprints?

  1. In career advancement, training, and education:

    • A manuscript simultaneously submitted to a preprint server and submitted to a journal can gain visibility and feedback from the scientific community during the time required for journals to receive reviews from referees.
    • The increased visibility of preprints can lead to invitations for seminars and conferences earlier than if communication is delayed until a peer reviewed publication is available.
    • Publishing a preprint on a community-recognized public server can establish priority for a discovery.
    • Preprints can provide evidence of productivity to complete training, for hiring/promotion and in funding applications; note that preprints are usually found automatically by Google Scholar and can also be placed on BioSketches, so they can be part of your official record.
    • Authors report increased feedback on their preprinted work.
    • Authors report being approached by journal editors to submit preprints for journal consideration.
  2. For funders, journals, servers, and tool-builders:

    • Preprints are immediately open access and therefore can enhance the impact of funded science.
    • Funding agencies can judge productivity more effectively with preprints than when researchers go through different processes in manuscript submission and revision.
    • Increasingly, journals are allowing submission of manuscripts previously posted as preprints. Some examples of preprint friendly journals are Science, Nature, PNAS, Journal of Neuroscience, PLoS journals, Journal of Cell Biology, Genetics and EMBO. Notable exceptions that deal with preprints on a case by case basis are Cell Press journals. A partial list of preprint friendly journals can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_academic_journals_by_preprint_policy but the most up to date information will be on author instruction pages on invididual journal websites.
    • Preprints are indexed for Google Scholar, Pre-pubmed and search.Biopreprint to varying degrees. They are not indexed for MEDLINE and therefore are not searchable through Pubmed. Preprints can however be included on the My Bibliography page of My NCBI.
  3. For the scientific research community:

    • Immediate availibility of preprints speeds the communication and therefore the advancement of science.
    • If a culture of public critical discussion is established around preprints, this process could supplement the traditional closed peer review process.
    • The members of the scientific community most interested in a manuscript can discuss it before publication occurs, potentially identifying issues in advance to improve the quality of the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

What are potential drawbacks?

  • Scooping: Preprints may not be considered by all as establishing priority and readers may utilize ideas from your preprint in a publication prior to your manuscript being accepted for publication.
  • Journal Review: Journal reviewers may see negative comments on preprints as cause to reject manuscripts for publication.
  • Bad Science: Preprint servers may be flooded with incremental data in order to inappropriately establish priority.
  • Quality proxy: It is difficult to tell the quality of non peer-reviewed work outside of one's field without a journal's stamp of approval.

So, UP, what does that mean for you as a researcher just starting out? We have a few recommendations:

  • Preprints, on balance, provide benefits for people at the early stage of their career. These individuals may have no other items moving through the peer-review pipeline and need to show productivity quickly. For this reason, we'd encourage you to participate in the process for now, while keeping an eye on how these contributions are recognized.
  • When you submit a preprint, we'd encourage you to make it a solid one. Preprints become part of the scientific record, and all preprinted versions are maintained. Developing a reputation for limited rigor in research can be harmful in other situations, and we think that the permanence of preprints entail some risk in this regard. Be your own harsh peer reviewer, even with preprints.
  • Advertise your preprint. This is a case where you won't have the brand name of a journal promoting your work. Share your preprint in twitter, send it to your colleagues, and when you give a talk, highlight that the work is available. Invite people to comment, and take their feedback to heart. Feedback on preprints provides the opportunity to do additional experiments pointed out by the community if they further strengthen your contribution.

Finally, if you feel that you want to support preprints, there are a number of ways to get involved:

  • Many people are unaware preprints exist. Trainees can bring up the topic to their PIs. PIs can bring up the topic at faculty meetings or cross-department committee meetings.
  • Submitting a preprint or providing feedback to authors on preprints will promote their usage.
  • Mentioning preprints at the end of a seminar or conference presentation can increase visibility of this mechanism.
  • The Accelerating Science and Publication in Biology (ASAPbio) organization promotes preprints in the life sciences. One can volunteer to be an institutional ambassador for ASAPbio (http://asapbio.org/asapbio-ambassadors).
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Aug 03, 2016

What should I look for in my offer letter?

Dear LeafSpring,

What should I look for in my offer letter that I might otherwise miss?

Offer Up

Dear OU,

This is a tough one, because every offer letter is going to be different and each lab has its own unique set of needs. We'll detail some of the items that may be important for you to consider, with special focus on items that are easy to miss. We've divided this into your obligations, resources startup, and restrictions on your offer. The bottom line is that the only promises you can count on are the ones that are spelled out in writing -- either in the letter itself, university policies, or in emails with your department head. (Even if you get along great with your chair, your chair may step down 3 years into your position!)

Your Obligations

You are receiving an offer because the University wants you to accomplish something. What is that? Do they want you to be primarily a researcher, a teacher, a combination of these things, or something else? This would often be spelled out in the letter.

  • What are your teaching obligations? If you expect a certain teaching rate or certain course selections, get that in writing. Some of us negotiated the development of specific courses that we were enthusiastic about, for example.
  • What part of your salary are they covering or, conversely, what are you expected to bring in from other sources?
  • How do you actually get paid (9 months? 11 months? calendar year?) How does summer salary work - if you don't have money during the summer, do you simply forgo a paycheck, or does your 9 month salary get spread out over the year?
  • What moving expenses and other benefits are offered (e.g. house-hunting trip, home purchase program)? Also note that many places will cover your visits under recruiting expenses until the instant you accept, at which point visits go on your startup money.
  • When do you get evaluated, and what can happen then? Is contract renewal midway through your assistant professorship normal, or something to worry about?


An offer letter should include in your startup package the financial, equipment, and space resources that are needed to set up your research lab and give you a good foundation for student support, preliminary data and grant applications.

  • Is there a defined amount of square footage for your students and lab, even if all they need is desks in a room?
  • Will your office be furnished by the department? If not, expect to furnish it from your startup funding.
  • A startup may include teaching reductions during your initial years in the position. If there are course reductions, how is their timing determined? Some people prefer to teach more in their first year, when they're still setting up a lab and recruiting students, and then leave time for grant applications and paper writing in year 2 or 3; others prefer the opposite.
  • Does your lab space require remodeling to accomodate specialized equipment? Equipment you consider standard may not be.
  • What's the department or grad program funding situation for grad student RAs and TAs? In particular, will you be able to bring in grad students that aren't always on your startup money (because they can get TAs, or there is a training grant)?


  • Is there a time-line during which you are expected to spend certain components of your startup? Some of us have been able to negotiate extensions to startup, but generally departments expect you to spend your startup rather than sitting on it.
  • Does your startup expire?
  • If you are awarded early grant funding that supports items that your startup was meant to cover, do you get to rebudget that portion of your startup or does the university take it back?
  • What restrictions exist on how your startup can be spent? If there are no restrictions, is there an explicit statement to that effect? (Startup is frequently completely unbudgeted - do you have to stick to a budget?)

Additional Considerations

  • If you need access to shared resources (compute, microscopy, other facilities), is that access defined in writing?
  • If costs for shared resources are shouldered by someone other than you, is that committment in writing?
  • Is there an acknowledgement that software, data, etc generated using resources from your startup will be made available under open licenses? Who determines which licenses?
  • How do things like family leave and tenure delay time work both in policy (do you request it, does it happen automatically) and culturally (is it allowed, encouraged, discouraged)?

Beyond the Letter

  • Universities often assume that you will find things like family leave spelled out in their policies, which are frequently byzantine. Nonetheless administrators will assume that you know everything in them (and then be surprised when you ask about something that's covered on page 552 - "oh, that's in the policy book!"). We might suggest putting together a few hypotheticals ("I adopt a child; how much time off do I get? do I get a tenure extension? if my partner is employed by the same university, do we share our time off?") and running through the policy book to see what would happen in each case.
  • Health coverage can vary between universities. It can be very important and is often ignored by new faculty. Generally the only way to really find out what's up with health coverage is to talk to recent faculty (note that older faculty may be covered under other health care guidelines; universities, like everyone else, are constantly cutting benefits for new hires).
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Jul 20, 2016

How do I choose what opportunities to say yes to?

Dear Leafspring,

As a new faculty member, I am being offered the chance to get involved with many things, ranging from new collaborative projects to workshops at conferences to editorial board memberships. How do I choose what to say yes to and what to say no to?

Besieged With Opportunities

Dear BWO,

Congratulations on your faculty position!

This problem doesn't get any smaller as you go further in your career. You'll probably feel this acutely as a new faculty member. You suddenly have more autonomy (and research money) than you've had before, but you may not have established rules for when to say yes or no. There's a lot of literature around this topic, that goes under the heading of "strategy."

We have a lot of advice, but it's all motivated by two bigger considerations -

  1. What do you want to accomplish?

  2. What activities will contribute to your career positively?

The former is up to you to define, but the latter is common across most research-intensive faculty positions.

Something else to bring into the mix is that you will have less research time than you did as a graduate student or postdoc. Almost every faculty member we've talked to is surprised at how much of their time is taken up by meetings and travel.

Developing a strategy

If you're at a research intensive institution, you will be evaluated almost completely on your research output. The first level of evaluation is grants and pubs, but even if you have these, you need to establish yourself as a leading expert in your area of research. This means being visible beyond merely publishing and will involve some mixture of giving talks, serving on grant panels, organizing workshops/conferences, and/or joining editorial boards.

This is where you can leverage practicing open science; if you blog or tweet, or post open reviews, you can gain visibility in less traditional ways. Some of us get more invitations to speak because we're active on social media, for example. As long as you have something to say when you get there, it doesn't matter how you get invited.

Back to your question - when should you say yes or no? For each activity you should decide whether or not the opportunity fits with your goals. Always do your best to accept invitations in your core scientific research areas, of course!

If you're being invited to speak on "open science" and that's something that is central to how your lab operates, you may want to say yes. If, on the other hand, you're open but it's not a primary mission of your lab, you may be better off declining the opportunity. Michael Porter has written that "The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do". Every time you say "no" you're better defining your lab's strategy.

The most important consideration is that your strategy should make sense to you and help you make new discoveries, write clear grants, pubs, and achieve visibility -- especially within the community(s) you want to be identified with. At the end of the day, though, you won't be evaluated as much on how you became successful as on whether you are successful. A coherent strategy will help you do that.

How should you get there?

We can't give you a strategy. Your strategy will depend on the type of research you do and the other activities you're interested in. Instead, we can point you towards some resources that we've found particularly helpful:

Some of us have found it helpful to keep a "things I've said 'No' to" list. This can help to provide perspective on your visibility even at times when you feel invisible because you're declining opportunities to focus on other things (professional or personal). It can also counter the worry that "If I don't say yes now, I'll never get asked to do this again," which is almost never true.

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