Career Center

After years as a student in other researchers' labs, you finally have the chance to be in charge. But where to begin?

Newly minted graduates face a host of challenges when setting up their first research labs. At small schools, research funds and other resources can be limited or nonexistent; at large schools, the task of deciding how to best use those resources can be overwhelming. But there are some timeless tips that make the transition from student to faculty easier.

Here's the advice of four diverse psychologists, ranging from a young professor at a small, teaching-oriented college to a former department chair at a large research university.

  • Adapt to your circumstances. The type of setting that you're working in-be it a big research university, a community college or a small liberal arts school-will influence to some extent the kind of research that you should focus on, says Henry Roediger III, PhD, a former chair of the psychology department at Washington University in St. Louis.

Roediger, who set up his first lab more than 30 years ago, recently co-authored a chapter about setting up a lab and beginning a research program for the book "The Compleat Academic: A Career Guide" (APA, 2004), with Jeffrey Zacks, PhD, an assistant professor who set up his first lab at Washington University in 1999.

"If you find yourself at a small liberal arts college, you probably can't do neuroimaging," Roediger explains, and you might have to change your research focus somewhat from your graduate school interests.

But, he says, that shouldn't be discouraging. "Some people have thrived at very small places and done groundbreaking work."

For example, Roediger and Zacks point to noted cognitive psychologist Endel Tulving, who began his career in 1956 at the University of Toronto, which at the time had almost no resources for psychology research. So, although Tulving had focused on vision research in graduate school, he decided to switch to a field, verbal learning and memory, that required very little equipment-and he quickly made significant contributions to that field.

  • Attract great students. No research program will get off the ground without a supporting cast of students. And new faculty members tend to attract students who are looking for a new mentor, says Roediger.

"Some of them might be great," he says, "but some could be people whose previous two mentors have run out of patience." Before you agree to work with any student, he advises, say you'll get back to them and then try to find out as much as you can about their work.

Also, Roediger says, make sure that you don't discount undergraduate students. "I think for the first four or five years I was in academia I mostly worked with undergrads," he recalls, "because the grad students wanted to work with the more famous professors." Those undergraduates, he says, can be a valuable source of research help.

Psychologist Kathryn Anderson, PhD, adds that undergraduate student participation is particularly important at small schools that emphasize undergraduate education. Anderson, who studies situational and personality factors that affect aggression, recently started the first-ever research lab at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio. "If you're teaching a research methods course, look for the top students and ask them to join your project," she suggests. "If you start to train them during their sophomore year, by their junior year they can do a lot on their own."

  • Ask for what you need. Negotiating during the hiring process for the resources you need is crucial, says Anderson. "It's much easier to negotiate before you sign a contract than after," she explains.

And remember to think long term: Ask for the resources-such as lab space and computers-that you will need not just immediately, but for the next few years, says psychologist Robert Morgan, PhD, who has been an assistant professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas since 2000. (See "Getting what you're worth" for more tips.) But don't despair if you realize after you've signed a contract that you forgot to ask for something crucial. You can always talk to your department chair about it later, says Morgan.

"You may or may not get it," he adds, "but the department brought you in to be successful, and they'll probably be open to your requests."

  • Invest your money wisely. Faced with that first pile of cash-whether from a university's start-up package or a research grant-the temptation for new faculty can be to either hoard the money or spend profusely, says Zacks. A wiser course, he says, is to invest in the key equipment, supplies and travel costs that you need to be productive.

  • Collaborate, but carefully. Collaborating with colleagues has many virtues, Roediger says: It can be efficient and can stimulate new ways of thinking about a problem. But, he cautions, you should also be careful not to overextend yourself.

"It's easy to start a project; all you need is to have an interesting idea over lunch," he says. "But then when it comes time to do the writing and data analysis, you can find you don't have time for everything."

  • Learn from the experts. Emulate people who have successful labs, says Morgan. When he first arrived at Texas Tech, he sat in on his more experienced colleagues' lab meetings to learn about their research approaches and how they ran their labs.

"That's what [psychologists] do, we study things," he says. "You can study how to have a successful lab."

Invest in the key equipment, supplies and travel costs that you need to be productive.