My professor recently had a problem, and he asked me for my help to solve it, and of course I ask for yours.

He was made the School of Engineering Dean, an while it sounds important it takes most of is time through an administrative black hole, also, because of this his office is now in another building so he cannot come to the lab as often as he would like to.

He started noticing less and less people come to the lab, and some only come for a space of a couple of hours and then leave, while he perfectly understands that research can be done everywhere, he is very big on cooperation and discussion among lab members, which can't be done if there is only one guy in the lab.

Do you impose any kind of restrictions on students going to the lab for a specific time? If you are not able to monitor it, how can you ensure they will come. I was looking into some companies that have IP based checking in systems, but seems like an overkill for a 10 person laboratory.

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    This might be irrelevant to your question but: One way to ensure students keep on track is setting up a regular meeting for the group. Say once a week or biweekly where each student is required to represent what has been done and what's going to be done in the near future.
    – seteropere
    Nov 22 '12 at 6:25
  • Thanks, we do have weekly meetings, with some mixed results. Nov 22 '12 at 7:41
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    RFID tags? Inciting to log each other’s presence? So many ideas come to mind… ;-)
    – F'x
    Nov 22 '12 at 8:08
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    For creative works it is much harder to control how much one works other than looking at it's fruits. First, it's very uneven, and enforcing standard 8h routine day may be not the best approach. Second, it's easy to trick (other's, oneself) by just sitting for 8h, or 12h, but doing less then if one were working efficiently for 4h. Sure, "working from home" sometimes means "'working' from home", but just checking number of hours spent like in a mine can be counterproductive (not to say - easy to circumvent). Nov 22 '12 at 13:20
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    @PiotrMigdal this is analogous to judging a programmer by the lines of code he types, or a manager by the amount emails he sends. Nov 22 '12 at 18:41

There’s one obvious way: to send a signal that lab presence is important, the research group leader and permanent staff must be more present in the lab. Most students are looking for opportunities to increase interaction with professors and advisers, thus by being “accessible” in the lab for discussions, you will increase lab presence. In addition to inciting students to come, that will be a even greater stride toward “cooperation and discussion among lab members”.

This also works with post-doc and the more experienced grad students: you need to avoid the idea that “lab presence” is only for the newbies, while the grown ups get out of there as often as they dare!

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    +1 for taking a positive attitude towards this problem. Enforcement of rules will probably lead to a sour atmosphere. Nov 22 '12 at 18:36

Two anecdotes that might be useful:

  • 9:15 coffee time: When I was a PhD student, our professor (or the lead assistant) would round-up everyone for "coffee" every day at 9:15am. It was usually only 15-20 minutes, and nobody cared if you went home at 11am. You weren't excused from missing "coffee," even if you worked all night and went home at 5am. Of course, there was some flexibility for jet-lag, vacations, article submissions, etc. The prof was paying our salaries and this kind of request was simply a question of not being insubordinate. The positive side effect was that people were fairly disciplined and there was a good exchange of "status" during those meetings. It made the lab feel like a family. Everyone knew more or less what was going on.

  • Use it or lose it: My current university has card-access to all the lab spaces. A few years ago, one of our labs was "physically downsized" by the administration, and their argument was it wasn't being utilized enough, and other researchers needed the space. They had the hard data to prove it. So, many of our students complained they had no more cubes for their books, etc. But in the end, I said it was partially their fault for not "occupying" the space, partially our fault for not forcing them to. It's an argument I use to explain the necessity to be in the lab every day.


I cannot stress enough that you need to take a positive atitude towards this. The people, including the students, are there to learn something and do good work. On the whole, these people are motivated, and if they are not, strict enforcement of some rules will not get the motivated scientists you want. Therefore, reward postive behavior, not punish negative behavior.

For example @F'x's suggestion, make the lab a stimulating environment where it is nice to work. This means having senior members (professors, postdocs) present, and stimulate interaction. This can for example be done by organizing literature groups where someone prepares a good paper and the group discusses the content. Or organize weekly sessions where people present their work to each other and discuss it.

In addition, make the students and employees part of the solution. Explain that the attendance has dropped, and tell them why you think this might lead to less coorperation and productivity. Suggest and discuss possible solutions with them, and try to improve the situation.

These things said, at some stage people need to get freedom, especially the PhD's and postdocs. Judge people on their output, not their attendance. Although master students might need more monitoring...


Since you said that the "research can be done everywhere", the same can be said about collaborations. As long as things that needs to get done are done, you can't really complain. So: make "cooperation and discussion among lab members" one of the things that needs to get done. Enforce a culture where during the weekly meetings you begin by asking a random member of the lab to describe what some other random member did during the past week. If the goal is "cooperation and discussion", it shouldn't matter whether the lab members do it in the lab, in the office, or over a cup of coffee in the break room.

If, on the other hand, the goal is really to make sure that people come in to the lab and not slack off, then the best way is to tell them to their faces (during the weekly meeting, for example), that "they should come in to the labs regularly and not slack off". Give them an expectation of "working hours" and chew them out for not following it (if he can notice that fewer people are coming in, he can surely pull out 10 minutes every two or three days to do lab inspections during the expected working hours).

If the members of your lab cannot be trusted to behave like responsible adults, then you either really need new lab workers or you should just install one of them video baby monitors. :-)

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    Scenarios like this ended up with the Chemistry Professor's popular letter. I'd highly advice against this. A discussion group seems to be a far better and constructive idea.lettersofnote.com/2011/03/…
    – Naresh
    Nov 22 '12 at 12:38
  • Trying to force people to become productive scientists is not going to get your result. You might increase the attendance rate, but not te scientific output. Nov 22 '12 at 18:18
  • ...in addition, if the members of the lab do not behave like adults than you are already too late and the restrictive policies will not get you any results. Nov 22 '12 at 18:40
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    The first point is a good idea though. I once took my entire group out for lunch and had each person explain what the person next to them was doing :). It was both amusing and interesting.
    – Suresh
    Nov 23 '12 at 7:26

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