For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate. ——Margaret Heffernan
Conflicts in research groups are common. Even in a small lab with no more than 10 people, conflicts still exist. I think conflicts between lab members can arise for a variety of reasons: different educational and family backgrounds, scientific knowledge differences, social status, satisfaction at home, personality, hierarchy, work efficiency, preference of a lab head, etc. Given that conflicts are inevitable, it’s important to be prepared for dealing with them appropriately. I shall share my personal experience dealing with conflicts with my fellow labmates, including my advisor in my lab and how I went through them.
Conflicts often resulted from hierarchy
First-year students are usually at the bottom of the food chain in a lab. They can be like lambs; fascinating meals whilst senior students are wolves. When I was a first-year student in my previous lab five years ago, I was obliged to take care of all the mice in my lab even though I didn’t and wouldn’t use them for my project by my advisor. The lab head insisted it was beneficial for green hands, and cheated me by saying they might be useful for my project in the future. But breeding mice took time. So, while I was learning biochemical techniques for my research project, taking Ph.D classes, attending seminars and delivering literature discussion classes since my second-year, I also juggled breeding mice and conducting genome typing.
Frustration and dissatisfaction from both my advisor and myself came along; we had small quarrels over these things now and then. I made it a point to speak to him about these disagreements both in private and during lab meetings. We reached a compromise in which we passed some of my work to another junior. Communication allowed me to stand up for myself rather than allow my PI to think the treatment I received was acceptable.
If you are an open and talkative person, talk to your mentor straightforwardly about your conflict, and arrive to the discussion with well-prepared explanations for your side. The explanations should at the very least include reasoned arguments and proposed solutions. This conversation could happen in private or during lab meetings where everybody is present. Lab meeting is absolutely an ideal occasion for conflict solving. It’s not about losing face–it’s to solve a problem through discussion. Besides, more people means more ideas instead of gossip or rumors.
If you are a rather shy and introverted person, try consulting with other members who you trust before you go to the advisor’s office. Ask him or her about opinions and experiences towards certain conflicts. Their advice will help you have more confidence during the conflict resolution process.
But what happens when communication with your advisor fails? In this case, I suggest you explore other resources available to students: consult your thesis committee, other trusted faculty, or administrators for conflict resolution. Many universities also have an Ombudsman office for help with these issues. Switching labs is another option to consider if you find your committee and other resources don’t prove helpful. The decision to switch labs should be made carefully, and our blog has offered up advice on this tough call before.
Conflicts with labmates
Usually these kinds of conflicts happen over authorship over a shared project, facility usage, room occupancy, preference of a lab head, etc. Sometimes conflicts arise over completely non-scientific disagreements. I once had a colleague with extremely picky tastes regarding bug spray fragrances. So picky, that she dictated what scent I, as a junior student, was allowed to use. I raised this issue during lab meeting, but the advisor seemed to be afraid of her. And he insisted juniors should listen to seniors. If you are unlucky enough to have these kind of strong-willed personalities in your lab, the best solution is to avoid direct conflicts. If the lab head agrees with the senior, then the junior needs to find a compromise. And similarly, the junior could negotiate with this senior to see if both sides could work out a best way to get along well. Additionally, telling someone whom you trust and who is in good relationship with this senior about your concerns could also help. Your relationship with the person may never be perfect, but by being willing to negotiate a resolution you’ll have done your part to ease tension.
As for authorship conflicts, these can be much more intense and more difficult to resolve. It’s a tough question to decide who did the most work, who designed the project, who was more responsible for the data and other complicated issues. When these situations occur, it depends on the lab head. It would be better for students to discuss this issue with their advisor about authorship early in the development of the project.
Take-home message: Communication is key
Conflict is a fact of life. Conflicts are inevitable once you have to work with a group of people. Solving scientific problems is already difficult, and unavoidable conflicts or other emotional issues will add to your mental load. But a silver lining I found was that the pain I’ve described here made me grow stronger. I learned a lot of mental intelligence in dealing with these knotty problems. The main lesson is that communication is of utmost importance! Telling others how dissatisfied you are is better than saying nothing.
- Mind Matters: Managing Conflict in the Lab, Irene S. Levine, Science, Sep. 23, 2005
- Overcoming Conflicts in the Lab—and Beyond, David G. Jensen, Science, Nov. 30, 2007
- Lab conflict and how to address it, Jack Leeming, Nature jobs, Mar. 9, 2018
- Conflict Resolution Skills: In and Out of the Lab, The New York Academy of Sciences, Oct. 26, 2014
- Scientists say there’s no easy way to handle lab conflicts, Thomas Durso, The Scientist Magazine, March. 17, 1997
- Uncover the Sources, Summon Your Courage and Confront the Problem, Lab Manager, Jan. 2010
- The Ombudsman Association, 2018, http://www.ombudsmanassociation.org/about-the-role-of-an-ombudsman.php.
- Conflict Resolution in the Lab: Big and Little Conflicts, Lab Manager, September 12, 2017,
- Teaching is another way of learning: The rewards of being a teaching assistant, Early Career Research Community, May. 2018
- I switched research groups — and lived to tell the tale, Anna Goldstein, September 17, 2013.
- Authorship: Who’s on first?, Amber Dance, 2012, Nature. https://www.nature.com/naturejobs/science/articles/10.1038/nj7417-591a
- Margaret Heffernan, www.mheffernan.com/?location=CN
Featured image by Geralt, available on Pixabay through CC0 Creative Commons.