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Lab Mom

Lab Mom spent 15 years as a Lab Manager in Academia before off-tracking in 2010 to stay at home with her two daughters. She blogs about the juggling act of motherhood and a science career, which encompasses a lot more then the cliche work-life balance.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Yes, it is that time of year again.  When we celebrate the holidays with the people we spend most of our waking time with.  No, not friends and family who mean so much to us, but those annoying coworkers who stand next to us hour after hour, distracting us from correctly pipetting our RT-PCR reactions and annoying us with questions they should already know the answer to since we have answered them 10,000 times before.

Now I have worked in various labs during my career, and have had multiple PIs with different religious backgrounds and cultural customs and so I have seen a lot of holiday traditions come and go. Some good and some, well, not so hot.  Lets review a few now shall we?

1. The Holiday Party:

Oh boy! The annual lab holiday party!  The event we either dread and avoid (we find ourselves praying we will be on our family vacation on the other side of the country) or we look forward to because there will be free liquor and come Monday there will be at least one great story of someone embarrassing themselves.

The party styles I have experienced have run from the all-out black tie shin-dig, to a simple lab lunch at a local Chinese food restaurant.  When you first join a lab you never know exactly what you are going to get in terms of the holiday party and the first one is always tricky and awkward.  Are spouses/significant others invited? Do we bring a gift? How about food? Who else is attending? What do I wear?  You need to find out from someone who has been to a previous party what the tone is going to be exactly, since you never know what you in for.  After the first year, it is always much smoother sailing since Holiday parties always seem so much more pleasant when you know what to expect and are able to prepare and psych yourself up.

If you are a new PI you want to be at least a little careful about what kind of parties you throw when your lab is still young and small, since you ARE setting a precident.  Picking up the bar tab at a fancy hotel is not a biggie when you have 4 people in your lab, but when you are up to 20 folks all sucking down the gin and tonics, you will be rethinking your style of holiday party.  You also want to consider the fact that frequently the type of events at holiday party become somewhat a tradition.  If you do a white elephant swap, you should know that the following year most members of your lab will expect you do to it again.  If you have a catered buffet the first year we are not going to be expecting a pot luck the next.  Don't add and take away holiday 'traditions' on a whim, it drives members of your lab crazy!

Honestly, (at leasat in MY opinion) less is more.  We all have plenty on our plates at the holidays, and I was always more than happy when the parties were small, short (even during work hours was fine with me) and not too much fuss.  I always felt at least a little sense that the boss was throwing a party out of a sense of obligation, and really, that vibe isn't much fun to anyone.  Taking us all out for happy hour or for a nice dessert and a little small talk was enough to show us we were appreciated, anything more was really just a pain in the ass.  (And I say that in the nicest way I know how!)

(I am writing this from the perspective that most PIs are the ones in charge of throwing holiday parties for the immediate members of their lab.  Yes, frequently Academic Departments and even Schools will also throw large parties, but often they are planned by department support staff and individual input is limited.)

2. Holiday Gift Giving:

Ick. I really hate this one.  Honestly, I hate picking out gifts for my family, so gift giving for my labmates is pretty much intolerable.  I have been fortunate that (at least in most cases) gifts were not typically exchanged in labs I have worked in.  Frequently we (members of the lab) would all go in together on some sort of gift for our PI, and perhaps the housekeeping and animal husbandry staff but not each other.  Sure there is the exception of baked goods or other edible treats, but rarely were real 'gifts' exchanged.

I have seen some some debate about whether or not you should get your boss a gift for the holidays.  After having both Jewish and Atheist PIs in the past, I definitely lean towards NO.  In my opinion it does lead to a strange blurring of the relationship especially depending on how personal the item is that you choose. I will stick by the advice that no gift is better than the wrong gift when it comes to superiors.

On the other hand, people who do things throughout the year to help YOU out do deserve a thanks.  The holidays may not be the best time to show your gratitude, but if you haven't taken the chance to thank them at another time in the year you may as well use Christmas as an excuse.  I almost always get my undergraduate students, core facility staff, housekeepers, administrative staff, and other people who I want to keep on my good side a gift for the holidays.  Something small, maybe a couple bucks on a gift card for a coffee, or a 12 pack of fancy beer for the guys in the machine shop or mail room. In the end it will pay dividends.  They definitely will remember me as the beer lady when there is a big line of broken incubators, and I request mine back ASAP or I need someone to track down a lost package.  That is the gift that keeps on giving!

3. Holiday Food

I have already mentioned it, but it bears repeating.  The way to LabMom's heart is through her stomach.  I love holiday food.  It is always okay by me to bring in holiday treats and leave them in the mail/lunch room for all to enjoy.  Now I know that some people do not appreciate what Christmas cookies and lovely baked brie does to their waistline, so I implore you to not give out food individually, but instead leave it as a self-serve gift, so those people who are not interested do not feel obligated to indulge.

I also would say out of courtesy CLEAN UP AFTER YOURSELF.  It is one thing to be generous enough to bring in stuff for everyone to share, but DO NOT put it in the fridge and forget about it indefintitely. If you have brought your goodies in from home, please take back the leftovers, including the packing and any other accessories that may have come with it!  It is NOT a gift when your coworkers have to clean up leftover week old pound cake that has hardered to a rock like state. That is just annoying.


So there you have it:  Lab Holidays 101.  I hope no matter how you celebrate, that you all have a wonderful Holiday season.  I wish you peace, joy and plenty of grant funding.  May you have a happy and healthy 2011.

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Blog Comments

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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My old boss didn't do anything for the lab when Christmas rolled around.  I'm pretty sure he was a hardcore atheist.

My new boss took us all out to dinner the other night at a fancy seafood restaurant.  It was a lot of fun! I hear that my new boss usually throws a Holiday party, but Whitney and I invited both of our labs to our house for a Christmas snacks and white elephant gift exchange party. We did the gift exchange early so that the people with kids and an anti-fun gene could leave early while the rest of us got drunk and eventually busted out Rockband for some fake Karaoke.


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When I was a grad student we did a summer party in the park. PI would bring his guitar and basketballs and we'd cook out. All were invited. It was awesome.


Postdoc, nothing, ever. Ever.

Admin, some folks exchange little gifs; I got some cake and candy and stuff, and the 'potluck' lunch was catered this year (boo! My co-workers are Thai & indian!), but it was still nice.


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I agree on the gift giving- I would prefer not to receive gifts from the people I manage. It is really ok.

But I do get gifts for all of them because I want to thank them for all they did to make the year a success. I always make sure to give to the people I have to bug all year round to help you out at the last minute. I make sure customer service is very happy since at least twice a week I am asking them to please get samples or products shipped before the cut off time.

I did get my bosses a gift even though I know they'd be fine without it. It feels good to let them know how much I appreciate them. It's a good time to be generous if you have the means, but if not, a card with a thoughtful message inside is just as good as any gift- or maybe better.


unbalanced reaction

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Haaaate buying presents for coworkers.  So I don't.  Now I follow your policy: support staff and custodians only, thankyouverymuch!


Happy 2011!!

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Cool post! We don't do anything for the holidays (except that I encourage the group members to take a break) but I do take the whole group to dinner when someone graduates (I pay). I don't like buying gifts (hate shopping in general) and receiving gifts (unless from from very close family) always makes me very uncomfortable; I really cringe when students bring me gifts. If you absolutely must give me something, make it a Toblerone.

I like and agree with your point about buying small gifts for staff, and I generally try to go with a small gift certificate.

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