Organizing a lab retreat

2017/03/04

I’ve helped organize retreats for my graduate and postdoc labs, and I wanted to write down some of my lessons learned.

(As a side note, there was an editorial in PLoS Computational Biology about how to organize a scientific retreat. I think they were thinking on a bigger scale in terms of people, dollars, and distance than I was, but I liked their list and I used it as a guide to make my own.)

Include everyone in the planning. For everything you need to decide about the retreat, ask the PI and poll the lab members. When you make plans or decisions, announce them in a steady stream. I’ve used Google Sheets to have an active, open picture of what is happening. (See below for an example.) The more buy-in you have and the more transparent the process, the better the trip will end up.

Include many people in the execution. Make people in charge of stuff. I like to split the duties into teams. For each of these teams, have a chair who can take ownership and do some careful and creative thinking of their own. Make sure each chair has a team of people that can help them accomplish their goals. This approach means that no one person is saddled with too much work and that many people become invested in having a great retreat. Here are some possible teams:

Define the purpose. Is this retreat just for fun, or will you do science too? This decision will probably come from the PI, but polling the lab members is a good idea too. Usually people do these retreats to get to know each other better, to have fun, and (maybe) to do science. Personally I think it’s better to have explicitly for-fun retreats and explicitly for-science retreats.

Pick the duration, date, and venue. Do you want to go away for zero nights? Three nights? What do you want to do on the trip? Will it be on a weekend or weekday? For this, the lab members should definitely be polled. It’s hard for junior students to miss class by away on weekdays, and it can be hard for older students or postdocs to be away from their families on weekends.

Clarify the budget. My experience has been that the PI will use lab money or will pay out of pocket for some part of it. In older, more established labs, the lab might pay for everything; in younger labs, I’ve seen the PI take care of lodging while the lab members split the costs of transportation, food, and activity. There’s no one right answer, but it is important to make sure everyone is on the same page about money.

Establish policies. Some important questions include:

Include everyone socially. Make sure that you’re doing things that engage everyone. If the social activities chair likes to drink many beers but a quarter of the lab doesn’t drink, you should make sure the social chair knows it and is developing an inclusive social program.

Collect feedback and keep records. Feedback is the a great to make people feel included and to figure out how to improve things. Records are a great way to help the next retreat organizer figure out how to do it well.

And as an appendix, here’s the structure of the Google Sheets I’ve seen used for retreats: