Training graduate students in SLAM (Science Leadership and Management)

Teresa (right) and I met in high school at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. We love doing science and talking about how to make science better.

Teresa (right) and I met in high school at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. We love doing science and talking about how to make science better.

Regular readers of the blog may know that I feel strongly about the importance of skilled leadership in a lab. I believe scientists need to be taught the so-called “soft skills” that are required to be a good leader.

Last year, I recruited a team of dedicated, like-minded graduate students, and we created a class to teach ourselves what we wanted to know–what is the best way to run a lab? As we learned over the course of that semester, effective leadership is not second nature to most scientists, nor is it a mystery of the universe. There are some “best practices” for how to lead and manage that are well-known outside the academic culture, and they should be taught formally as part of a scientist’s graduate curriculum.

For this coming fall, our training program is growing into a series of talks that we’re calling Science Leadership and Management, or SLAM for short. (Allow me to pause here and give a standing ovation to John Haberstroh for his marketing genius. Who doesn’t love a good acronym?) We are preparing a stellar lineup of guest lecturers from a variety of science career paths and marketing authorities like Yeah Local to speak on subjects like motivating students, building effective teams, delivering feedback, and more. Our vision is that this type of training will someday be developed on a national level, to be applied at any university for any scientific discipline.

If this sounds like a good idea to you, there is something you can do right now to support SLAM. Go here to vote for our entry in the 2013 NSF Graduate Education Challenge. Teresa Lee (beloved BSR author) and I wrote an essay about SLAM for this contest, which you can read below. I’ve also included our answers to a brief questionnaire that accompanied our submission. Please vote now, and ask your friends to do the same!

Note: Registration is required to vote. After you’ve voted for us, take a look at the other entries. There are a lot of great ideas there, and I guarantee you will come away with a bit more hope for the future of science.


Tell us about your team

We are two members of a 5-person student team who decided in 2012 to organize a course at UC Berkeley on the principles of SLAM (Science Leadership And Management). Both of us had sat in on courses in organizational behavior and management, and we wondered why the same concepts weren’t being taught to graduate students in science. These courses applied a social science-based understanding of interpersonal interactions to real world problems. We were pleasantly surprised to discover that there is a wealth of data about how to best approach some common difficulties encountered by scientists. If scientific leaders learned to apply management principles to their groups, they could keep their labs running as smoothly and productively as possible. Good management helps groups accomplish a shared goal while allowing everyone in the group to achieve their full potential, and we want to share that knowledge with the scientific community.

Why are you competing in this challenge?

We have identified an unmet need in STEM graduate education. When we started our own management and leadership course for scientists, we were surprised at the number of professors and administrators that told us how valuable they thought our course would be. Our thought was, “If this training is so valuable, why should we limit it to UC Berkeley?” This challenge is the perfect opportunity to bring national awareness to the issue of teaching leadership in graduate school.

What makes your team qualified to win?

Based on our experience as researchers in training, and numerous conversations with scientists both inside and out of academia, we have devised a simple solution to a serious problem. We’ve shown that our idea can be successfully implemented, even by graduate students who aren’t experts in management. Improved leadership skills have already been useful to the students who took our course and will become even more important throughout their careers, no matter what path they follow.


Training graduate students in SLAM (Science Leadership and Management)

by Anna Goldstein and Teresa Lee

The problem

All across the country, Ph.D. programs excel at preparing young scientists to succeed in the laboratory. Students learn how to identify scientific questions, how to design and perform experiments, how to interpret data, and even how to communicate their knowledge to others. However, there is a paradox in science education: the further a scientist advances in their field, the more removed they are from the bench. The responsibilities of a research scientist, whether it is in an academic, industrial, or government setting, tend more towards leading and managing than toward active lab work. Scientists are hired based on their excellence in the lab, and are then suddenly responsible for coordinating a group of students, post-docs, and staff to conduct experimental work. Rarely does their training fully prepare them for this responsibility.

There is an urgent need for formal instruction in how to successfully navigate interpersonal interactions in a laboratory, which we call SLAM (Science Leadership and Management). As the future leaders of the scientific community, much will depend on our generation’s ability to help lab members work together effectively. The ramifications of more capable leadership even extend beyond the lab – the complexity of today’s most pressing research problems has led to increasing collaboration, including large projects like those that mapped the human genome and constructed the Large Hadron Collider. A senior researcher must have both the scientific knowledge and the interpersonal skills required to guide potentially dozens of scientists toward research success.

We are not the first to notice a serious lack of management education for scientists, and many agree it is better to start earlier in a scientist’s career than to wait and provide on-the-job training. In 2012, the National Academies held a workshop entitled Graduate Education in Chemistry in the Context of a Changing Environment; among the skills that participants identified as important for students to learn in graduate school were “Learning to manage other people” and “Exhibiting leadership” (1). In a 2012 Nature commentary, Jessica Seeliger described the challenge of adjusting to the management responsibilities of an assistant professor: “When it comes to running our labs and managing people, we have to rely on our gut feelings, our limited know-how from mentoring a few students or our observations of our previous advisers.” (2) Although there are a number of professional development programs available to graduate students and post-docs, these tend to focus on securing a position rather than performing it well.

The origin of the problem lies in the culture of science. In carrying out research, scientists prize rationality above subjectivity and expect breakthroughs to arise from the work of brilliant individuals. But increasingly, good science grows out of relationships between good scientists. Scientists are people, and people do not always react to challenges in the most rational ways. There are entire fields of social science devoted to studying the most effective ways of organizing, motivating, and managing a group to accomplish a common goal. Every business student receives instruction that prepares them to become effective leaders. With this wealth of knowledge available, why are scientists left to reinvent the wheel?

Our solution

To fill the current educational gap, graduate students in the STEM fields should receive formal training in SLAM, with a focus on specific leadership and management challenges that arise in scientific contexts. This need is neither addressed by existing curricula in Ph.D. programs nor by more general management training for professionals.

We envision a course similar to the one that we founded at UC Berkeley in 2012 with a committee of fellow students from the departments of Chemistry and Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB). We organized a lecture series where guest speakers presented on a wide range of topics, including conflict management, mentorship, and team-building. The course content grew organically from the interests of the speakers, but several overarching themes emerged. Students learned about the many different communication styles of scientists and how they impact working relationships. Speakers presented various strategies for how to resolve conflicts with employees, supervisors, and peers. They also focused heavily on the importance of clear expectations and specific, constructive feedback in keeping lab members motivated and productive.

The course enrolled 60 students, the majority of whom were in their 4th or 5th year in Chemistry or MCB. From midterm and end-of-semester assessments, we learned that almost all students felt that they benefited from taking the course: 18/19 survey respondents answered “Agree” or “Strongly agree” to the statement, “The ideas I learned in this course will help me in my future career.” We hope that this course will be offered yearly, and we expect it to be developed and refined over time, perhaps even becoming a requirement for Ph.D. degree programs in participating departments. Our model for this course could easily be reproduced at other universities.

Not only will SLAM training be important in the career development for any student who goes on to run a research group, it will also be immediately applicable in a student’s graduate research. The principles of successful interpersonal dynamics can be put into action right away, ensuring that students are equipped to produce successful research during their Ph.D. This type of training also has value beyond careers in research science. Strong interpersonal skills become even more useful assets if a student chooses to leave research to pursue teaching, consulting, or any number of other alternative career paths, as more newly minted Ph.D.s are choosing to do.

Some organizations have sponsored workshops targeted at scientists, like those from HHMI, EMBO, and Cold Spring Harbor. However, each of these workshops can only serve a relatively small group of people, most of whom are junior faculty. If leadership training were instead built into the structure of a graduate curriculum, early career scientists would have already had years of experience honing their skills before accepting a formal leadership position. To reach the broadest possible audience of graduate students, this type of training must be endorsed by department and university administrators, as well as federal funding agencies. The NSF should sponsor training programs and develop a standard curriculum that could be tailored to suit the needs of each particular department or field.

The class that we offered last year demonstrates how easy this idea is to implement. But we only scratched the surface of what could be accomplished by a dedicated team of educators and students, working together to map out a training course. The most effective course would incorporate skill development through interactive exercises and informational content from lectures and readings. Citations from the primary literature on organizational behavior would allow students to evaluate the utility of the skills they learn, while also appealing to a scientist’s data-driven outlook. To better prioritize which skills to address, the NSF could conduct a survey of scientific leaders to identify which skills they have found the most useful (or which skills they wish they had acquired before embarking on their career). Long-term assessment could track the success and satisfaction of the students following graduation, to determine whether this training makes a measurable impact in their careers.

The bottom line

Modern graduate education follows a centuries-old model of apprenticeship, which has not kept up with the evolution of scientific research. Research groups now resemble small businesses, where the principal investigator must fill many roles: supervisor, mentor, teacher, manager, publicist, and fundraiser. Even those with the best of intentions cannot lead effectively if they have not been exposed to good management practices.

Scientific research fuels innovations that are immensely valuable to our society, like in the areas of information technology, renewable energy, and life-saving medicines. It is a tragic waste of resources to tackle these goals without creating a workforce that is as efficient and well-run as possible. As it stands, researchers are left to discover effective management strategies by trial and error. With so much funding and effort invested in each individual graduate student, why should we leave their leadership development to chance? By including the SLAM skillset in scientists’ graduate training, we will generate more effective scientists and faster scientific progress.

References

  1. Committee on Challenges in Chemistry Graduate Education; Board on Chemical Sciences, Technology; Division on Earth, and Life Studies; National Research Council, Challenges in Chemistry Graduate Education: A Workshop Summary (The National Academies Press, 2012).
  2. Jessica C. Seeliger, “Scientists must be taught to manage,” Nature 483, no. 7391 (March 28, 2012): 511.

Leave a Reply

5 comments

  1. Maggie

    A great idea and article. I didn’t have time to attend the seminar last year, but I will definitely make time to attend this time around. Best of luck with the NSF competition!

  2. Thanks, Maggie! We are working hard now to book speakers for the fall, and we hope to make the talks as practical and informative as possible.

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  4. Alan H.

    Anna & Teresa –
    I am a UCB product – with BS, MS, and PhD (1982) in Engineering (Structural Mechanics and Dynamics) with minor in Applied Math. I was a faculty member for many years (although not lucky enough to have been chosen by some premiere US institutions who interviewed me upon graduation), have written and reviewed many proposals to/from NSF, and reading your submission I was so favorably impressed that my hope for scientific progress in the US by youth such as yourselves is once again revived. Best of luck to you in whatever direction life leads you – I am convinced your paths will be rewarding.

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