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Question of the month- lab size

Posted by , on 28 May 2015

Lab sizes vary considerably, from small groups that include only the lab head and maybe a student or postdoc, to huge enterprises of several dozen people, including senior postdocs that manage smaller sub-groups under the overall supervision of the PI. What are the advantages of small versus large labs? Is it inevitable that a lab must continuously increase in size to be competitive? In other words:

 

How big should a lab be?

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2 thoughts on “Question of the month- lab size”

  1. This is a very good question, as it relates to many other issues (e.g. attribution of credit, how productive a lab is, how funding should be allocated on the basis of productivity).

    I do not think I know the answer but does anyone? Most people will have their favourite answer and senior scientists will have had the chance to see many labs, but I still would surmise that the sample will be too small and biased. I wonder whether this has ever been studied systematically at all: how productivity (as in paper points per budget unit), or the likelihood to produce a breakthrough (how to measure that is difficult matter, true), or degree of satisfaction of lab members, or likelihood that they will complete their projects, is affected by lab size?

    From my personal, limited experience, small labs (less than 4 people) struggle to be productive as it is difficult to really push a great project when necessary – but this can be solved by collaboration and these labs are usually good value for money. I have been told that “6-7 is ideal” because PI has time to follow everyone and it is not so expensive that the time spent in writing (and advertising) consumes all PI activity. I have also overheard that “10 is the limit of what I can handle” but I have seen people handling that – and having to work very hard to keep funding coming in. More than 10 is not a lab, is a small institute, and I am not sure the associated expense is justified — on the other hand it might be argued these labs might have a better chance at making a big breakthrough (I have my opinion on that but this is not the place).

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