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Tips for New Lab Managers

Identifying the right support and resources will help ease the transition from scientist to manager

Michelle Sprawls

Michelle Sprawls is the director of science at CULTA. She graduated from Northern Arizona University with a BS in microbiology and is certified in closed-loop hydrocarbon extraction machinery, adsorbent filtration,...

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Becoming the head of a lab is more than just making big discoveries; it is about managing a small business. Being a good lab manager is difficult. The role requires a variety of skills, knowledge, and behaviors. Most of us became lab managers after demonstrating some success as scientists in the lab. While we have the scientific and technical skills required to be effective lab managers, most of us must rely on our experiences to develop the leadership and management skills required for the role. That pressure can be overwhelming to new managers, and it is difficult to know where to look for resources or guidance. So where do you begin to look, and who do you go to for help? Here, I share some of the resources I have found in my journey and what helped me.

The benefits of mentorship

One of the best ways to grow as a lab manager is by learning from experienced leaders who have been in your shoes. Finding a mentor can be more difficult than it sounds, especially if the role you are stepping into doesn’t have anyone above you. A work mentor doesn’t have to be in your department or even from a science field. A mentor can be someone that you admire, that has been at the company for a while, or someone  you can trust and bounce ideas off of.

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If you struggle to find the right mentor internally, look externally. The Association for Women in Science (AWIS) provides career development, networking, mentorship, and leadership opportunities for women in science. Memberships are built for careers of all levels; whether you are a student, in your early career, or a full member, there’s a tier for you. If you are in the clinical setting, The American Society for Clinical Laboratory Studies (ASCLS) has a mentorship program that pairs mentors and mentees one-on-one to discuss any goals or challenges the mentee wishes to work toward. This program is for students, new professionals, and new members. If you can’t commit to an ongoing mentorship, The Association of Lab Managers (ALMA) offers a unique opportunity for managers and future managers of laboratory organizations to grow their skills through its annual conference. The ALMA conference includes workshops, presentations from managers who share their experiences, round table discussions with peers from around the world, and networking opportunities.

How to effectively manage your time

Mentorships are important with early career scientists, as well as managers, at any stage of your journey. It is far better to navigate the waters with someone who is supportive and compassionate than struggle through it solo and burn out prematurely. Having the right mentor can help early lab managers shorten the learning curve and accelerate their professional development.

Having a mentor is a great, but how do you manage your daily to-do lists within interruption-prone environments? This is where time management comes into play. To maintain a sense of work-life balance, your time management skills need to be top-notch. Some managers respond to the dilemma of lack of time with utmost focus and purpose, while others stress themselves out.

The more successful a lab manager is, the more demands there are to attend conferences, sit on special committees or boards, draft grant proposals or license applications, lead and mange new projects, and attend to other administrative duties. Effectively managing your time is essential to the success as a lab manager or lead scientist. Since a manager’s most valuable asset is time, plan ahead. Planning out your day in advance is one of the most important elements of time management. Before you start your day, have a clear idea of what your schedule looks like. Next, prioritize. Of the 10 tasks you have in a day, not all of them will be equally as urgent. Therefore, it’s necessary to prioritize. Make a to-do list and categorize the tasks based on their order of priority. Finish the important and urgent ones first and leave the less important ones for later. Now that you have your day planned and prioritized, you need to eliminate distractions—whether that’s refraining from scrolling through social media or being disrupted by noisy coworkers. Having your smartphone around serves as the biggest distraction these days, so it’s imperative to get these distractions out of the way.

Striking a healthy work-life balance

One of the key misconceptions of a new manager is that they must do everything themselves but learning to delegate is crucial. Whether you’re a part of a big corporation or own a small business, delegating tasks is always necessary. It saves you a lot of time and enables you focus on the tasks that need your special attention and expertise. The reason you hire people is so that they can contribute in meaningful ways, so take advantage of the help.

Make time for yourself. Amidst all the hard work and hustle, we often forget to take time for ourselves. This results in sleeplessness, fatigue, mood swings, and a general unpleasantness. Therefore, taking time out for yourself is equally important. Take a break in between tasks, eat healthy, spend some time outside, or perhaps listen to some relaxing music.

Lastly, when it comes to streamlining communications, organizing inventory, and general project management, lab managers often seek digital tools that go beyond SharePoint, Zoom, and Teams. Here are a few suggestions on digital aids for communication and project management:

  • Asana, Trello, Jira, and GitHub: These tools help teams to see the broad view of a project, allowing users to create and complete tasks, meet deadlines, capture detail-rich notes, and provide templates for common protocols. The tagging functions of these tools allow managers to assign tasks to team members.
  • AnyDesk or Teamviewer:  Software used for accessing and controlling computers remotely. Beneficial for managers who are away from the lab and need to log in for troubleshooting instrument issues or validating results/methods. If you need to be in two places at once, these apps let you step away while still being online for your team.  
  • Benchling: A suite of life sciences apps with tools for DNA design, lab notebooks, and more.
  • Quartzy: Centralizes lab orders and maps inventories.
  • Voice Dream: Converts text into voice and can be used to listen to PDFs of papers in the same way as an audiobook.
Headshot of Michelle Sprawls
Michelle Sprawls

Managing a lab is difficult without the necessary skills, but those can be taught just like technical science can. No matter if you aspire to be head of your lab in the future, it’s your first day on the job, or you’ve been in your role long-term, developing the required skillset is essential to be a successful lab manager.

Michelle  Sprawls, director of science at CULTA, has been diversifying her role in the laboratory and scientific industry since 2013. Sprawls delivered a presentation that expanded upon the topic of management resources and training opportunities during the 2022 Lab Manager Leadership Summit. To view the full presentation on demand, click here.