Feature

Ah, the nightmare lab partner — the one who delegates lame assignments to you, takes credit for your ideas or brown-noses like a fifth-grader. Even a single semester alongside such a person feels like an eternity. Thankfully, you don’t have to suffer in silence.

Here are some common power-play situations you may encounter in the research lab, and how best to handle them:

  • Your colleague has co-opted your idea. Don’t immediately assume it was intentional. There’s a phenomenon in the memory literature known as cryptomnesia, whereby someone mistakenly believes he or she generated an idea, when in fact it was someone else’s brainstorm. “In my lab, this seems to occasionally occur,” says Ian McDonough, a psychology grad student at the University of Chicago, who acknowledges that his “own memory” is not without its flaws. His advice? Get involved in the project your idea spurred. “Participate in the meetings, help collect data, basically do anything to show face time,” says McDonough. That way, even if you don’t get credit for the idea, you’ll become an integral part of its development and co-authorship on related papers.

  • You feel like your lab partner is trying to leapfrog you on authorship. The best solution here is to prevent it from happening in the first place. “This arises from a lack of communication upfront,” says Loren J. Naidoo, PhD, an industrial and organizational psychology professor at Baruch College, City University of New York. Before embarking on a study, “talk about who’s undertaking what responsibilities, what the order of authorship will be, and the rough number of hours per week each person is expected to work.” That way, you won’t find yourself blindsided by a colleague later.

  • Your colleague weasels out of menial tasks. Despite what primetime television would have you believe, not all lab work is glamorous. Take audio transcription. It’s crucial to qualitative research, but it’s also mind numbing and time consuming. It doesn’t help when your colleague says he won’t stoop to such labor — or worse, tries to foist it on you. Bart Craig, PhD, a North Carolina State University psychology professor who studies counterproductive work behavior, says such situations call for a “shared problem-solving approach,” in which you suggest tackling the issue together rather than being confrontational or assigning duties unilaterally. It could be as simple as saying, “I always get this task, you always get that task. Could we trade that off sometime?” says Craig. In other words, you’re more likely to see results if you define the problem as the lab work at hand — not whatever personality flaws you may see in your lab mate.

  • Your colleague is creating an overly competitive lab atmosphere. Your partner won’t stop talking about that prestigious postdoc that you applied to, and she got into. Don’t engage. Instead, let your colleague know that you’re trying not to think beyond the semester at hand. A cutthroat vibe in the lab is often counterproductive anyway, says James LeBreton, PhD, the director of graduate studies at Purdue University’s psychology department. “When I sit down with my graduate students, the first thing I say is, ‘Your competition is not sitting across from you at the lab meeting. They’re in Ann Arbor, Mich., or Athens, Ga.,” says LeBreton, adding that successful psychologists collaborate, rather than compete, with classmates. To that end, try to foster a cooperative atmosphere inside and outside the lab. Don’t get together for individually competitive activities like bowling or poker. Think team trivia night at the corner bar.

  • Regardless of the problem, don’t let it simmer. When a colleague is undermining you in the lab, your worst option is to do nothing. Even minor annoyances can morph into a deeper resentment when left to fester, compromising not only your working relationship but the work itself. Simply commiserating with the lab mates you do get along with doesn’t address the problem, either. “You get one cadre lined up against another, and it’s terribly corrosive to the climate,” says Craig. Your first step can be as simple as proposing to swap lab chores or drawing up a formal authorship agreement for the paper you’re working on. But you can also address the issue quietly on the psychological level. For example, if your lab mate’s conspicuous ambition grates on you, try to cultivate a more tolerant attitude toward competitive people. Your new perspective just might spare you some hellish hours in the lab.


David Jamieson is a writer in Chicago.