Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Lab Groups

In grad school, I openly envied my colleagues in the sciences.  It wasn’t the slightly higher stipends or the chance to play with cool toys, as real as both of those were.  It was the opportunity to work on a regular basis with a lab group.

In most of the humanities and social sciences, scholarly work is mostly conducted alone.  I remember being unpleasantly surprised at just how isolating graduate school could be.  Some of us routinely talked shop with each other, of course, but a combination of shared ignorance and misplaced competitiveness put limits on the usefulness of that.  

In contrast, the folks in the sciences had work groups handed to them, and they had to be able to work with each other.  When I visited my friend the chemical engineer out in California, I was immediately struck at how great it was that he and his labmates could take group coffee breaks in the middle of the afternoon.  (Later, a mathematician colleague told me that math is the process of turning coffee into theorems.  It sounded right to me.)

As an outsider, it would be easy to idealize the lab group.  As with any group of disparate, intelligent people, it can fall prey to any number of dysfunctions.  Someone is distracted, someone is a prima donna, someone gets ditzy at key moments, and egos are never entirely out of the picture; I get that.  But compared to the war of each against all that my own field took as normal, it seemed inviting.

At some level, I still carry the lab group ideal as my model of what a college could be.  At its best, it’s a group of intelligent people with different strengths working together on a shared project.  The project is experimental -- by definition -- and at the end of the day, the results of the project speak more loudly than anyone’s opinion.  Membership in the group can evolve as the needs of the task change.  Over time, the lab group makes real progress in solving the issue it has set for itself.  And all the while, the members of the group have each other to lean on.

It’s not a perfect model, but there’s a lot to be said for it.  The trick is in getting there.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a college (or company, for that matter) do a good job of moving to a “lab group” culture?  Is there anything in particular to be sure to avoid?