Summary: Having a lab manual helps me communicate with my lab members, and remind myself about ideas which are core to my lab culture and tiny bits of shared information that might otherwise get lost.
One thing I did when I got serious about organizing my lab was to create a lab manual. None of the labs I trained in had a lab manual, so I made this up as I went along. So far I've found it to be very helpful (and hopefully my lab members have found the same!).
Why keep a lab manual?
My primary motivation in creating a lab manual was to document foundational lab policies and provide a set of shared expectations. The basic idea is to make sure that all of the "important" things in the lab occur, and one step toward realizing this goal is to communicate the important things to lab members.
The second reason is as a reminder to myself to talk to lab members about issues. I will forget which lab members know what lab policies, and by writing down critical reminders and policies in the lab manual I'm less likely to forget to review them.
Finally—and, in the long run, perhaps most importantly—my hope is that having a thorough lab manual that reflects my personality and expectations helps shape the culture of our lab, by communicating its culture to both current and future lab members. So, I've explicitly included sections on scientific integrity, the value of open science, authorship, and other "big picture" topics. Although these may be of practical use if disagreements occur, I hope a more common outcome will be making lab members aware of how I view science and the type of environment I aim to promote. In my experience a lab's culture is strongly influenced by the PI and long-time lab personnel, but guiding principles are rarely explicit. My hope is that by being intentional and vocal about what I'd like to achieve I will be more likely to attract people with similar values; from a pedagogical standpoint I think it also helps communicate my approach to running a lab to trainees (and to the Internet, in case it's useful to anyone).
The first draft of my lab manual was the result of essentially a single brainstorming session, followed by some rearranging of sections and headings. Since that initial draft I update the lab manual in at least three ways:
- When a new group of undergraduates join the lab (typically at the beginning of the summer, or the beginning of a semester) I'll have them read the lab manual. Prior to this I'll give the manual a quick reading and make edits and improvements.
- Throughout the year, whenever something comes up and I think "everyone needs to know this" I try to add it to the manual. I may not print a new version every time, but I know that the next time I do it will have updated information.
- If lab members have corrections, questions, or suggestions (which hasn't happened often in practice).
I have a page at the end where all lab members sign and date to indicate they've read the current version of the (printed) lab manual.
Our lab makes use of several forms of communication and documentation: the lab manual, a lab wiki, and a lab project management site (Basecamp). I've struggled somewhat with trying to decide where to document certain items. I've settled on a rule of thumb where I try to keep the lab manual focused on:
- Guiding principles that reflect my overall vision for the lab (or overall goals for a particular topic).
- Details only when these seem to be overlooked or not included elsewhere.
The other practical consideration is that any lab member can update the wiki (and they are encouraged/required to do so), but I'm the only one who updates the lab manual.
A lab manual is essentially a book, and lends itself nicely to LaTeX. I use MacTex and the memoir package (bundled with MacTeX) for my lab manual; unfortunately I haven't had as much time as I'd like to tweak the layout, but that can always be done in the future once I have the content in place. The source is on github if you'd like to take a look.