Sunday, April 11, 2010

Lab retreats: yay or nay?

Lately, I've been hearing a lot about lab retreats, mostly from labs abroad and I've been wondering why we don't have them here in Chile (or at least, it's not an activity that most labs here integrate into their yearly plans).

Is it because some PIs think it's a waste of "bench" time, or maybe because they think that lab meetings are enough to discuss the research of the different lab members, or maybe something else?

So, the following question is directed to fellow scientists working in labs that do have lab retreats. Why does your lab have lab retreats? In your opinion, what do lab retreats contribute to the advancement of the lab that weekly lab meetings can't? Do you like having them? Do you feel that every lab should have them? On the other hand, have you ever felt like the time spent in the retreat could be better spent in the lab? What about having them every other year, rather than every year, would this be better?

And to those who work in labs that don't have them, would you like to have them, or are you better off like this?

Please note that I'm all for lab retreats and I actually want to make them part of my lab's activities: I feel it's a good time to discuss new strategies, new directions and new techniques.
Anyway, I felt it was important to get input from people that have actually experienced lab retreats on a yearly basis.

Feel free to comment!


(Image credit: both images are from lab retreats at Eric D. Brown's lab, which has a great website, by the way)

ScienceBlips: vote it up!



Chris Dieni said...

I've worked long-term in two labs now: my graduate lab and my postdoc lab.

My graduate lab never had meetings. Ever. My PI had an open-door policy and I would go see him any time I needed help or direction. However, as for the reverse, I would never be called to attend a meeting that wasn't initiated by me, with two exceptions: 1) I hadn't talked to my PI in a really long time, and he was wondering what was up, or 2) another student was having a meeting with my PI, and I was called in because it was felt that I could contribute in some way.

My postdoc lab is the opposite. We have at least one meeting a week, sometimes two or more. There is the group meeting, where everyone in the lab attends. Then there is the project meeting, where everyone working on a certain project attends. Often, there can be individual meetings, with just one or two people attending. If anything though, I feel like these meetings, especially if they happen often each week, can be counter-productive. It throws off your routine when you need to stop your work, and start preparing for a meeting, then go over what was discussed in the meeting, and start your work all over again- sometimes with a slightly new direction based on what was said in the meeting.

With all that said, NEITHER of those two labs had any retreats, and I would have LOVED to see a retreat.
1) It gets you away from the lab, allows you to change your scenery, focus, thoughts, perspective.
2) It allows for a more relaxed discussion about research.
3) There's an element of fun too- there's work and then there's a bit of play as well!

If I'm fortunate enough to ever run my own lab, retreats are something I would personally strive for, and additionally I would favour them over structured, regular, routine in-lab meetings.

-- Chris

CellPerseus said...

First of all I should say I'm all for lab retreats. My lab consists of two main lines of work, each one leaded by a PI. Both groups have certain thing in common so we're a twin-group lab if you may.

Once a month we have big meetings and each sub-group has meetings on a weekly basis. Once a year we have a day trip with everyone in the department. BBQ, pool, beer and stronger spirits. Not really sure if it counts as a retreat.

My sub-group in particular has a young PI and we often get together for some beers (during and after our Journal club + weekly planning session) after 6PM. The usual meetings take place during/near lunchtime or after 6 always trying to avoid work hours.

Now to the point. Yay on the retreat because:

- It allows a change of scenary (that always helps)
- Helps with bonding, not always easy (or wanted) with your PI. But as a whole it will lead to a well-oiled machine.
- Discussion of everyones results is always beneficial regardless of where it takes place.


el astudillo said...

In my case, I believe that our PI thinks that a lab retreat is a waste of time and it will be better spent in the bench, as you said. I would like to have them, but not onlye to discuss results or to have brainstorming sessions, but for a more fundamental reason: to have better relationships. Some scientists often forget that, at last, scientists are people, and hence a good environment is always welcomed.
Anyway, it seems that here in Chile, PIs just are not interested in lab retreats; I've heard about just a few labs doing them, and not in an annual-fashion. Maybe we should try something to do them and to see if the productivity increases.

Alethea said...

I'm on the fence. I have been in labs where there are regular retreats and it's been fantastic and stimulating - like a really focussed, small conference. I almost drowned in one of these retreats, too, which was a bonding experience...

These were in U.S. labs. There have also been departmental retreats at pleasant places, which work out pretty well, too, though I was a grad student at the time.

In my French lab, the individual groups have evoked retreats (esp when there are postdocs who have been in US labs) but not implemented them. Our department has tried to impose retreats and they don't fly for two reasons - finding a place to welcome people within driving distance of Paris is expensive and difficult, so it tends to be in fairly rustic conditions - and it's not culturally acceptable to ask people to take time off their weekends or evenings away from their family. These tend to generate a lot of resentment among people in couples or with (especially) young children. The feeling translates into the environment. The scientific generations never mix very much, though there is a little bit of beer hour/abstract feel to it, it never worked very well.

In another institution in the South of France, where the natural environment is much more amenable, I've heard that they have quite successful two-day lab retreats. So it depends a lot on the environment and local culture.