Small Talk: How big is your lab?

I really dislike being asked “how big is your lab?”. The question usually arises at scientific meetings when you are chatting to someone during a break. Small talk can lead to some banal questions being asked, and that’s fine, but when this question is asked seriously, the person asking really just wants to compare themselves to you in some way. This is one reason why I dislike being asked “how big is your lab?”.

The other reason I don’t like the question is that it can be difficult to answer. I don’t mean that I have so many people in my group that I can’t possibly count them. No, I mean that it can be difficult to give an accurate answer. There’s perhaps a student in the group who is currently writing up, or possibly they’ve handed in their thesis and they are awaiting a viva – do they count towards the tally? They are in your lab but they’re not in your lab. Perhaps you jointly supervise someone, or maybe there is someone who is away working in another lab somewhere. I’m guilty of overthinking this or at least fretting about giving an incorrect answer. Whatever the circumstance, I think that the size of most research groups is not very stable over time, so I dislike the question because it’s difficult answer accurately.

I looked at group size recently because the lab had surpassed the milestone of having 50 all-time members and I wanted to see how the group size had varied over time.

Timeline of people in the lab

The first timeline shows the arrival and departure of lab members over time. The role of each person is colour coded as indicated. Note that some people start in one role and get upgraded. PG to PhD, PhD to Post-doc (PDRA). So what it the group size over time?

Group size over time

It turns out that we peaked this year with a team size of 12. The smallest size (besides the period where I started out, when I was on my own!) was at the end of 2012 when I prepared to move the lab to a different university. What has the make up of the lab been during this time.

Constitution of the lab over time

In this last plot the fraction of the team that are PhD, post-doc etc. is shown over time. This plot is interesting because I can see that it was two years before a PhD student joined the group and also how the lab has become post-doc-heavy in the last 18 months.

So what is the answer to “how big is your lab?”. Well, take your pick. Right now it is 11 with someone just joined this week. Over the last year it has averaged at just over 10. Over the last five years it has been 8 to 9. It’s still not an easy question to answer even if you can see all the data.

Methods: I have been trying to use R for these type of posts, so that sharing the code is more useful, but I drew a blank with this one. I found several tools to plot the first timeline (timevis and vistime). To do the integration and breakdown plots, I struggled… I knew exactly how to make those plots in Igor, so that’s what I did. All that was required was a list of the people, their role, their start-end dates, and a few lines of code. I keep a record of this as previously mentioned.

The post title comes from “Small Talk” a track by American Culture on a Split 7″ with Boyracer on Emotional Response Records.

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