Tales of the lab: 6 International experience

“Jede Verallgemeinerung ist eine Ubertreibung”. Every generalisation is an exaggeration. Our German teacher in prep classes told us to use this sentence in our dissertations for the competitive entrance exams to the Grande Ecoles. Every generalisation is an exaggeration. Always true.

However, one can also sometime find trends and average results that apply for the largest number, right?

Since I have now been wandering in quite a few different academic institutions, I found it an interesting exercise to try to pinpoint the main characteristics of each environment, to highlight the differences and similarities. Of course, my personal experience is closely related to my status, the length of my stay, the university, the department and the lab in question.

Let’s start by discussing the working hours. As in any public academic environment, working schedules are not defined and researchers have a lot of freedom. I would thus say that the differences I saw are more closely related to the cultural differences. In German-speaking Switzerland, it is not rare to find people in their office at 7, 7:30 am, should it be staff, students, postdocs, or professors. They typically have a day from 7 to 5 or 7 to 6. In the USA, I was surprised to see that some of the permanent staff would start around 4 am and leave by 4 pm, while students or professors would typically be along 11 am to 11 pm. In the UK, most people would come by 10 am to grab a nice cup of tea and leave by 7 pm. Again, I couldn’t help notice that German-born failed to this rule and tend to come much earlier. In Singapore, the permanent staff’s schedule is respected by the minute, 8:30 to 5:45, whereas students are more likely to arrive by 11 am and stay much longer. I observed that post docs tend to arrive earlier, around 9 am. On week ends, the labs are usually deserted, even though in all labs, Chinese and Indian-borne students are likely to be around. But some of their work involved cell culture, which needed to be fed over the week-ends as well. However, I was quite surprised to see that a lot of students in the USA were staying really late, or coming really early – basically working over the night – and being there on week ends (yes, I also went there, for the sake of this post 😉 ). They were telling me the reason for this was that during week they have to handle all the lectures, sometimes even teaching and supervising exercises, and this left very little time for research.

What about the lab organisation? Against expected clichés, I found that the most hierarchical and organised lab I went to was in the UK. But here should be noted that this was a very big lab –huge, with more than 60 employees at the time-, and I can imagine this organisation was needed to keep the work running so smoothly. Each student was supervised by 1 to 3 postdocs who then were more often in touch with the professor. There were basically more postdocs than students. Also, it is not so uncommon to found postdocs staying up to 10 years as a postdoc there, so they had a lot of experience and were almost playing the role of assistant professors. There were also secretaries to assist with the safety training, administrative tasks, but also paper writing and submission. The hierarchy was also found in the spatial distribution of the desks, with postdocs rooms and students rooms, office space and proper lab space being also separated. The whole group was divided into three subgroups, each lead by a postdoc in charge and with its own subgroup meeting, lab-space, and lab cleaning calendar. Lab cleaning was taken very seriously, to keep it tidy, to refill the consumable, and to avoid cross contamination in the cell-culture area. Every week, lab cleaning. In comparison with this lab, the one in Switzerland was much smaller, since one third of its people. Yet, this was already considered as a very big lab. The hierarchy was also clearly visible in terms of space organisation: students sitting next to their lab bench, while postdocs, senior scientists and professors were sitting across the corridor, in proper office space. The secretary was only part time and did not completely relieve the professor from his administrative work, so part of it went to the postdocs. However, since I have seen that lab growing from a small close team to a much bigger one, I can see that the organisation tends to resemble the one in the UK. In Singapore, however, hierarchy does not seem to be that obvious. Postdocs and students have different office space but lab space is the same and some ph d students have also administrative responsibilities. In the US, I was in a ‘baby-lab’, but it was not the culture of the department to favour postdocs in general – they were thus very few-, and the professors were always called by their titles. It seemed to me that the faculty staff had a lot of “power” whereas the students or postdocs or employees were more workforce. On the other hand, there were a very large number of people on the administrative side. There was also quite a few permanent technical staff, much more than in the other institutions I have visited. Also, lab-space was shared among the groups of the department.

Differences can also be noted relative to handling safety and equipment. As a new lab member in Switzerland, you hardly have to pass any training before accessing the lab and the equipment. Usually, you get a 30-minutes lab tour and have to sign a form with some rules. But you have to get a fire-extinguishing training where you actually have to extinguish a fire with a blanket or a fire extinguisher. If you want to use a piece of equipment, you can go for it or ask the relevant person about it. Only expensive or sensitive equipment have a proper training and booking system. In the UK, there is an official safety training of a day before being granted access to the lab space. Then, you need to ask the right person to use the equipment. In Singapore, you need to pass long and tedious online exams before a booking account can be created with your name. Then you can just go and use the equipment and ask someone. Then in the USA, performing an experiment requires a safety check signed by two faculty member and the safety responsible and you need to provide all the information about the equipment (data sheet) as well as the operating procedure.

Social activities? Lunch is usually the main social activity that binds the group as a “family”. It is also very culture-dependent. If in Switzerland, and Singapore, lunch-break is a group-break, there is no lunch break in the USA, they basically eat all the time at their desk, and it is a group-meeting-break in the UK. I believe the larger the group, the more social activities. This is also probably correlated with the fact that in larger group, there are more foreigners who not already have a social network outside the university. This is particularly striking in Switzerland, where mostly only the foreigners take part into the social activities of the group. The UK was the top 1 in terms of socialising, in particular with an almost compulsory Friday-pub evening.

We have gone through time schedule, lab organisation, safety, social activities. There would be much more to say, let’s keep it for another post 😉