PI Lab Management Tools

As a PI, you are, for all intents and purposes, running a small non-profit organization. Your time is split between raising money, administering finances, recruiting students and staff, and dealing with a myriad of administrative tasks which are absolutely necessary but do not represent areas where your value added is high. In RLE, we encourage PIs to make the most of an important resource within your group—your administrative assistant. Your assistant can and should act as your liaison to areas within MIT, including RLE Headquarters, which deal with administrative matters. By maximizing this important relationship with your assistant, you can make your life easier.

PIs often don’t know what to expect from their assistant also known as an AA. The following information is intended to acquaint you with the role of the assistant; give you an overview of what you should expect for job performance; and provide insight into what the assistant is hoping for from you as their supervisor.

If you are experiencing difficulties with your assistant, please seek guidance from either Flor Nawara or Richard Petruzzelli in RLE Headquarters.

Here is a generic job description of the general duties and responsibilities associated with the typical assistant position in RLE. You may add or delete duties based on your needs.


Generic Administrative Assistant II Job Description:

Administrative Assistant II, Research Laboratory of Electronics, to provide comprehensive administrative support to professor with teaching responsibilities and a large, active research group. Activities of the group involve interaction with students, sponsors, researchers, other faculty and RLE headquarters (HQ) staff. Support to professor includes making travel arrangements, managing contacts, complex calendar management, updating professor’s CV, preparing course material, preparing documents, guiding travel and other reimbursements, and monitoring deadlines. Will organize small projects; for example, a publication workflow that might include several stages from pre-print to distribution. Will coordinate arrivals of students and scholars to the research group to ensure office space, IT arrangements, mail delivery, sign in to RLE HQ, etc. Will assist with website management. Will answer phone, maintain group email lists, order supplies, coordinate group meetings, process personnel and financial transactions through RLE HQ, and create and maintain filing systems. Incumbent must interface with professor’s major sponsors, frequent collaborators and contacts and coordinate these important interactions, including site visits.

REQUIREMENTS: High School education or equivalent. A minimum of three years secretarial, office, or related experience. Bachelor Degree preferred. The position requires strong organizational skills, fastidious attention to detail and the ability to prioritize, anticipate, and initiate administrative tasks. Must have a strong customer service orientation; strong interpersonal skills and ability to build relationships within the lab, with colleagues and RLE HQ staff. A thorough understanding of MIT administrative processes is strongly preferred.


Top 10 things Your Assistant Wants You to Know

 (also known as “The Assistant’s Wish List”)

  1. To be considered a non-technical member of the research team – to be shown an attitude of inclusion
  2. To be treated with respect as a professional — a “thank you” goes a long way
  3. To have open (2‑way) communication regarding the following, but not limited to:
  • New grants
  • Travel
  • Calendar
  • Reports
  • Accounts
  • New students
  • Class schedule
  • Changes in research group
  1. To meet regularly (ideally weekly, minimum monthly) to discuss needs and expectations. Again, dialogue should be two-way:
  • Both PI  and AA share needs and concerns
  1. To have an annual review evaluation, without exception. If supporting multiple PIs, then meet with each PI –
  • To show respect and value
  • To discuss strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and concerns
  1. For PIs to provide the resources and tools necessary to learn and do their job
  • To provide new and updated software
  • To allow time for training in new processes
  1. For PIs to have some training in managing people. At minimum, read
  • What PIs can expect from their AAs
  • What AAs can expect from their PIs
  1. For PIs to be flexible and understanding when the assistant is supporting multiple PIs
  • It’s difficult to provide good support for multiple PIs when:
    o There’s a sharp division of hours for the PIs they support. Example: when a PI has an emergency situation and needs help, but you are on another PI’s clock.
    o Sharing space with other AAs or students, or the PI is in another building.
    o One PI dominates the work load without enough hours to provide the support
  1. For PIs to realize that they don’t see a good portion of the AA’s work, such as:
  • Tracking lost packages and packing lists
  • Troubleshooting computer issues
  • Supporting group members with issues and general queries
  • Organizing virtual and physical space
  • Replying to emails
  • Maintaining websites and documentation
  1. To be empowered, not micromanaged for greater productivity:
  • Trusting that the AA can do the job empowers an AA to want to do his/her best.
  • Respecting that the AA knows the job promotes a healthy working relationship and environment
  • Showing appreciation for getting the job done motivates an AA to go the extra mile and do their very best.

This list was compiled by Catherine Bourgeois, RLE’s Training Coordinator, in conjunction with several RLE assistants.

Additional links:

Need help in thinking about how to manage your research group successfully?  The resources below can help.

  • Best Practices for Performance Management & Reviews


  • Postdoctoral Mentoring and Advising


  • The MIT Quick Guide—The Top 10 Compliance Issues Surrounding Research Administration Today


Other resources: