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I'm a 3rd year PhD student in a robotics lab. My advisor recently moved universities, so our new lab space doesn't have a large stockpile of supplies and equipment. As the person who does the most hardware-based stuff in the lab, I've been slowly acquiring necessary equipment and supplies for electronics work, mechanical assembly, etc, with the support of my advisor.

There most senior student in the lab is now trying to convince me to take on the role of lab manager. He indicated that in his past labs there have been graduate students who also are given the (extra, unpaid) role of lab manager. He keeps joking (?) that he will volunteer me for the position to our advisor.

It takes a lot of time to spec equipment, make purchase orders, organize tools efficiently, etc, and all the other students in the lab come to me when they need help with anything from university logistics to help using equipment. The equipment is necessary for my work, and I'm happy to help fellow students, but it's starting to take way too much time away from my work, and I certainly don't want a formal position that necessitates this responsibility. I'm giving a conference talk next week and will miss our regular lab meeting, and I'm worried that this other student will volunteer me for this position when I'm not there.

Is a PhD student also serving as an (unpaid, but official) lab manager a typical arrangement? I've never seen it in any of the labs I've worked with or observed. Research is my absolute top priority and I don't think it's useful for a PhD student to do the work of a lab manager because we're there to do research. If I do get volunteered for the "position" without my consent, will my advisor think I am an unmotivated student if I politely decline?

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    I don't work in anything like that, but is it really not that useful? If you continue working in robotics, won't you have to keep speccing equipment, making purchase orders, organizing tools, interfacing with the university, and helping other people? Or at least some subset of those tasks? – Azor Ahai Feb 23 '18 at 0:43
  • @Azor-Ahai To clarify, all of these tasks are useful and I always take care of them when they need to get done. My worry is that by being assigned the official title of lab manager I will have more people expecting that I should do all their tedious tasks for them, which will take way too much time away from real work. If I'm doing it to be helpful, I can decline if I have a paper deadline or something more important, or if it's something they really should do themselves. But if I'm the lab manager I may be expected to prioritize menial work over useful research. – bobthecoder Feb 23 '18 at 2:32
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A couple thoughts, on someone who has been now a grad student, a lab manager, and a PI:

  • Someone has to deal with those things, and the PI is often not the best person for that particular role. And it tends to be helpful if there's a single point of contact for things like "Have we ordered more X?". I find that "It's everyone's problem" turns into it being no one's problem.
  • A lab that will volunteer you for something while you're not there, the PI can't gauge your workload, etc. is not a lab I'd be enthusiastic about working in long term.
  • Working as a lab manager is a helpful entry on your CV, especially if you don't necessarily want to be a PI. There are often questions on this site about research careers that aren't TT faculty positions. Lab managers are one of those positions, and having experience with it etc. is a good thing.
  • It's also a good thing if you are interested in being a PI. Because from experience, when your lab is N = 1 people and you're just setting things up, knowing how all of that works is handy.
  • "...we're there to do research." And how will you do that without the equipment necessary for your work?

That being said, in an ideal world I wouldn't want a graduate student as my lab manager, because graduate students are inherently transient, and one of the values of a lab manager is as an inter-generational knowledge base. But maintaining a full-time, permanent position for essentially a staff scientist is often out of reach of even fairly well-funded labs.

  • Thank you, this is a helpful perspective. Regarding point #1, I tend to be the kind of person who will take initiative to do those things that are "everyone's problem" because it needs to be done, so I am already the de facto lab manager. But my worry in being given an official title is that even more of my time will be sucked away in increasingly useless tasks, as people keep expecting me to do work that they could easily do themselves. I would rather do what needs to be done out of my own self motivation than have a title that will cause people to dump all their menial tasks onto me. – bobthecoder Feb 23 '18 at 2:20
  • Hmm, my lab manager isn't really a scientist, but maybe it varies by field. – Azor Ahai Feb 23 '18 at 3:21
  • @Azor-Ahai Most of the lab managers I know have some bandwidth for "Interesting side projects", and aren't just administrative. But as always, things vary by field. – Fomite Feb 23 '18 at 4:43
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    @Fomite Mine has a degree in German - but we're a large group comparatively. – Azor Ahai Feb 23 '18 at 4:50

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