Graduate supervision and lab culture: How do we build psychological safety and nurture high-quality outputs?

A few days ago my colleague Dr. Fiona Webster asked me to share my approach to my research lab meetings, after one of our joint students shared how much she enjoyed them. After our discussion, Dr. Webster encouraged me to write about my supervisory approach and how I run my lab. Given how many young faculty members struggle to build their own successful labs, I thought I would follow her advice and answer a few questions on this topic, from my (albeit limited) perspective: What is good graduate supervision in the health sciences, with a focus on the social sciences? What kind of lab structure encourages the best possible scholarship?

What is good graduate supervision in the health sciences? 

I believe that good teaching is about fostering a passion for social scientific inquiry, encouraging curiosity about the social world, and nurturing strong relationships built on trust, respect, and the acknowledgement of the difficulties associated with research. I thus see myself as a guide for students embarked on a journey of self-discovery and apprenticeship into a particular intellectual tradition.

As a social scientist in the health sciences, I am a minority presence, and most of the students I supervise have had limited exposure to social scientific knowledge. My role is thus to socialize them into one kind of health scientific research: (mostly) critical qualitative health research, or research that investigates power structures using theory-informed qualitative research methods. Several before me have written about the challenges of nurturing such scholars in a space that values the randomized controlled trial over everything else. What I share here is a perspective on how a positive lab culture can help with this socialization, and counter the messages dominant in the health sciences about the low-value of qualitative research.

What kind of lab structure encourages the best possible critical scholarship?

As a social scientist who has studied teamwork for about 7 years, and as someone with a background in education, I used what I know about the academic journey, psychological safety, and feedback to design a lab culture that would help with the following objectives:

1.    Flatten hierarchies in a way that makes everyone, from undergraduates to advanced PhD students, feel welcome and comfortable together in the same space;

2.    Develop a culture where people can take risks, and successful do research in areas that are not in the mainstream of health research;

3.    Encourage productivity without alienating people and making it seem that I care more about the output than the people.

I was inspired by research Google has done on teams, and by the key principles they have identified which maximize team effectiveness. Their five principles—psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact of work—have resonated with me and my lab, and so we have built structures to support one-another along those lines.

Some might want to push back: a graduate lab is not a team, and ask: why would we want to think of a lab as a team? A team, for me, is a group of people who come together to meet a collective aim while also having their own needs met. My lab, therefore, is built to feel like a team: we do come together every week, except on holidays; and we share a commitment to the best possible critical scholarship. Moreover, it is a space where everyone’s needs has to be met. We all matter, both as individual scholars—since this is what graduate research is about—and as a team of scholars invested in one-another’s success.

Core functions of the lab are to help students read and engage with key texts and key ideas in the social sciences (we do this weekly during our lab meetings), and to help students develop a research project that is at once meaningful to them and that aligns with disciplinary standards of excellence. I believe that these functions help provide students with structure while maximizing both the meaning they find in their work and its downstream impact.

Establishing a productive and supportive lab format and culture

When I started my lab, we were a very small group, and I imitated the format espoused by my PhD supervisors: one or two people present their work every week, after circulating something with the group a week ahead.

I modified two things, however: I made the format more flexible and set explicit and clear group norms from the onset. 

Lab presentations as self-directed, flexible time

Since lab members—myself included—are all at a different stage on their academic journey, I wanted to ensure that presentation times were maximally useful and not too stressful. Advanced PhD students can often present their work easily, as they are wrapping up projects and gearing up for the job market. For less advanced students, especially at the beginning stages, there aren’t always concrete things to present, or writing to share. I therefore included many different things under “lab presentations,” so that everyone could decide what would be the most useful to them at the current point in time.

Things that “count” as a lab presentation include:

·      a formal presentation, with slides, as a rehearsal for an upcoming presentation, defense, or to meet objectives of course work;

·      a discussion of a published article by someone in the lab or in our broader intellectual community;

·      a question about theory or methodology to be discussed jointly;

·      an informal presentation of an article in progress by the presenter, for feedback.

The only requirement for lab presenters was to share something a week before the lab meeting when they had signed up to present, and to come prepared to discuss it.

During lab, everyone is then invited to share thoughts or provide feedback on whatever is discussed, within the bounds of our shared group norms. All questions or comments are acknowledged as valid, and answers are brainstormed together.

Setting and maintaining group principles

To make sure that our lab culture was productive and met the goals I had set for myself as a supervisor and for the group, I discussed core values with my students—graduate and undergraduates—early on. We brainstormed ideas for what might work for us all, and came up with the following three core group principles:

We recognize that academic work is a difficult journey, and that everyone is somewhere different on this journey. 

We start with very few skills and build them along the way. Nobody starts knowing everything, and nobody’s writing comes out perfect from the onset. Learning how to be a researcher takes time, iterations, and a lot of practice.

I always emphasize the difficulty of our shared endeavour because I know how I, as a junior scholar, assumed that others—my supervisors in particular—found academic work easy. This made me feel that I must be doing something wrong whenever I myself struggled. When in recent years I realized that my juniors and students similarly perceived me to be doing science effortlessly, I decided to make my struggles explicit and to verbalize it. In lab, we share successes and failures to normalize both. I share how my PhD advisor suggested a drawer for successes, and the recycling bin for rejections, so as to build resilience. Such sharing creates a psychologically safe environment where students can be pushed to do the best work they can while also knowing that they are not alone, that I understand that what they are doing is really hard, and that I have their back.

Feedback should be targeted to the person who is receiving it, and where they are on this journey.

Because academia is a journey, we shall therefore consider where every lab member is on their own journey in providing feedback, with the aim of being helpful and kind in helping others along. If during a meeting a lab member’s tone is inappropriate, or the comment too harsh, I see it as my responsibility at the PI to moderate it and rephrase in a more constructive manner. Aggressive or demeaning contributions are never accepted and never go unchallenged, so that they do not become legitimated through silence.

We are all committed to one-another’s growth.

It is a fiction to think that academic work is done by lone geniuses. Instead, when we work together we make everyone better. Because we are committed to one-another’s learning and journey, we all contribute to everyone’s development.

In practice, honoring our group principles meant several things. It meant exposing everyone to feedback on their work early and often, within a very positive, supportive environment. It meant that I, as the PI, also shared my work often, to demystify my own process and the very iterative nature of all articles. Students saw how my work evolved over the months, from outlines to early drafts, and towards publishable manuscripts. It also meant that whenever anyone joined the lab—be it a new lab member or a visiting scholar presenting their work—we reiterated these principles. Setting the tone and maintaining it over time has been, I believe, a core reason for the success of our Lab. 

Changing the lab format

In May 2017, a Twitter conversation with colleagues forced me to reconsider my lab and its success. As critical scholars and supervisors, it is important to know that our own power is often invisible to us. As PIs, we always have authority over our students, and our support is fundamental to their success. My colleagues forced me to ask: Was I blind to myself? Did I think that my lab was a positive space when it in fact wasn’t?

I ran a short 9-question survey with my lab members (n=7) to ensure that I was actually running a lab that concords with my values as a supervisor. Students responded that they found lab extremely or very useful, lab presentations somewhat, slightly or not at all stressful, and all said that they received the kind of feedback they would like during lab presentations.

Because I care deeply about how my students and employees find my supervisory relationship and how I use my power and authority with them, I asked the following question:

“As you know, power dynamics influence our relationships and behaviour, as well as how comfortable we are speaking up and speaking to authority. What do you think of Elise's (my!) use of power? Do you feel that you can speak up and talk back? Is there something she (I!) could do better?”

 They answered the following:

I get the sense that everyone, including myself, are in awe of Elise's expertise. This can be intimidating, but Elise has done a great job of reinforcing that this is a learning experience, the research and academic process is extremely difficult, etc. I really enjoy coming to lab, the people, and the conversations we have. I personally feel like I have come away from the meetings feeling much better about my research project. I appreciate the support and resources that have been made available to me by the lab group and by Elise. I don't see anything major to change or improve on (Lab Member 1).

She's perfect! I'd like more personal stories about her own issues or struggles throughout the entire process of becoming an established researcher at her stage now (Lab Member 2).

I think it has been clearly articulated by Elise and other members in the group how difficult the research process is and that has helped ease the anxiety :) (Lab Member 3).

Clearly, my students appreciate the way we run the lab, the manner in which I deliver feedback, the group dynamic we have created. The expressed need for more personal stories about my journey led me to become more candid about the struggles I have experienced in academia.

I shared the data back with my lab and together we made two decisions. We first decided to do more non-work-related activities together to spend time together and get to know one-another in a less structured context, and we have subsequently gone out for lunch and to visit different galleries across campus. We have also changed the format of the lab, away from the two 45-minute presentations per lab format to one 45-minute presentation, followed by a joint writing session. Students are expected to join others for the presentation time, and can stay as long as they can to co-write for three hours afterwards.

Thoughts on this experience? On how you do things differently? Things that have worked well or less well in your context? Join me on Twitter to discuss: @ep_qc