Teach graduate students to manage and lead

Scientists are often ill-equipped to manage a research laboratory

Earlier this year, I got a pleasant surprise when a friend sent me an article from the March 29 issue of Nature. Jessica Seeliger, an assistant professor at SUNY Stony Brook and a former postdoc in Carolyn Bertozzi’s lab here at Berkeley, wrote an editorial that echoed an ongoing conversation among my friends and coworkers. The subject of the article was quite clearly stated in the title: “Scientists must be taught to manage.”

I want to type that again. Once more, with feeling: scientists MUST be taught to manage. If you already agree, just skip to the bottom; I have great news for you! If you need convincing, read on.

Graduate students work for years to gain technical expertise in their chosen subject. They continue doing research as postdocs and further improve their laboratory skills. Then, in a strange twist of fate that has become totally commonplace, many of these scientists end up with jobs that take place almost exclusively in the conference room, not at the lab bench. Whether it’s in an academic, industrial, or government lab setting, a research scientist is often charged primarily with managing groups of people — a task that he or she has never been taught how to do.

Can you imagine starting a new job, one that bears little resemblance to your past jobs, and being expected to produce results without any mentorship or training? It’s mind-boggling. I had a chance to sit in on an undergraduate business class last semester, and I was amazed to find that students there were actually being taught skills that would directly help them succeed in their future careers! That was when I realized how truly off-the-mark graduate science education has become, and I started wondering how it might change for the better.

In her editorial, Seeliger calls for management training at the assistant professor level to equip young faculty with the tools for building a new lab. She says, “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… My current support network consists mainly of a handful of other young investigators, all of us amazed by the universality of the challenges we face.”

She also says that there are “many career-progression programmes and workshops now available for graduate students and postdocs,” but here I have to raise an objection. These are almost always tutorials on how to get a job, not how to do that job.

I believe this is not an accident; management is not taught because it is not truly valued. I fear that Seeliger is rare among her colleagues in that she cares about becoming a skilled manager. Professors are hired because they’ve performed brilliantly as individual researchers, not necessarily as team players. It should come as no surprise that many of them are not suited for management. Indeed, the systemic failure of scientists as managers was pointed out in another editorial in the same March 29 issue about sloppy data, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Leading a large group research effort is neither simple nor intuitive. On-the-job training is too little, too late for such a major responsibility.

One commenter on Seeliger’s article claims that training students in management skills is unnecessary, saying, “The students that will do well in life are the ones that will take the initiative to pursue this material on their own.” I strongly disagree; I’ve seen too many bad managers who are hugely successful, because they compensate with their other talents. But even if I accepted the premise, I think the commenter is tragically missing the point here. This discussion is not about whether or not a student succeeds in advancing his or her own career; it is about whether science as a whole succeeds in producing beneficial findings for society. Badly managed labs are less efficient and less productive, and this hurts everyone (see here for more of my thoughts on inefficiencies in the structure of science).

Scientists have to acknowledge that poor management is impeding our progress as a community. Teaching graduate students things like mentoring and conflict resolution would be a long-term investment in the future of science. We should reconsider the priorities of graduate education and make sure that tomorrow’s professors are not just the best bench scientists, but also the best leaders.

Now for the good news: a new seminar is being offered through the UC Berkeley Department of Chemistry that aims to do just that. Chem 298, Leadership and Management Skills for Scientists will meet at 6pm on Thursdays starting August 23. Each class meeting will feature a different expert guest speaker, teaching students how to understand and deal effectively with interpersonal dynamics in the lab. If you’re a graduate student in science or engineering at Berkeley, you should register for the course (CCN 12712). For more information, email Berkeley.LMSS@gmail.com.

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  1. Charlie Stone

    This is so true! I COMPLETELY agree with this and with your prior post, which were actually two of the main reasons I choose not to pursue a scientific career (though I also realized I didn’t have the passion for it and enjoy what I do currently more). Passion, however, can be a bit dangerous – I think if scientists were less passionate about their jobs the big issues in the field in terms of career trajectory, working conditions, and work life balance would actually be addressed better – perhaps assembly line workers unionize and fight hard for fair working conditions in part because more see it as a job than a calling. When my mother switched from working in academia to business she noted that people stopped expecting her to put up with bad treatment for the privilege of being in the field. The fact that no one does science without a passion for it is in many ways a good thing, but it also suggests the professional conditions are not very compelling on their own, or perhaps not even very fair.
    As someone who has through a business school, however, I see these classes as a stop gap. There is some intellectual technology there and I don’t want to dismiss it all, but a lot comes from being self-aware, working hard to improve, and some degree of natural talent. Moving from technical expert to manager is a feature of many career paths, and is always tough. Arguably it can be compared with training in the military or medicine – nothing can fully prepare you for combat or for being on rounds, and being a veteran will always be better than being new, but the training hopefully allows you or your patients to survive long enough that you can learn from your experience and become good.
    I also think there is a bigger issue – many organizations have enough diversity of career paths that some people become managers while others work as technical experts on the front line. A lab could have a senior scientist who was chief of staff and helped manage the process and personnel as the core part of their job, freeing the PI from some of that. Such a person could have completed a postdoc but be someone who is interpersonally skilled and prefers to focus on the overall lab than be on the bench. Many organizations in business and government have a one/two leadership team of a brilliant technical expert and a person who is technically trained but finds they enjoy being the orchestra conductor to being a player, who frees the technical expert of much of the management responsibility. For example, my mother ended her career as the head of operations and finance at MIT. After working in both business and academia, she felt she was more gifted and could contribute more as a manager than as a researcher, but liked that her work indirectly furthered the research enterprise and the institution.
    This would also create more career paths for people who are done with postdocs, offering many more opportunities for permanent employment. The whole post-doc system seems to me a bit outdated and cruel – it’s time to stop pretending that this is a stepping stone job for everyone. Not every post doc will get a PI job and a lab, but they are still paid like they are apprentices, not full professionals, and they are still expected to leave and make way for new blood. Again, pointing to other field, not everyone becomes a partner or president of an organization, just like not everyone becomes PI, but those who won’t be promoted to the top aren’t always forced to leave on the pretext that they’re just being prepared to eventually be at the top elsewhere, nor are they treated like less than full members of the profession after a decade plus of work. For people who accomplish a lot but don’t make it all the way to the top, a police lieutenant, line engineer at a factory or a vice president at a bank has a stability and maybe even a dignity that the supposedly temporary netherworld of postdocs doesn’t seem to provide. I am not sure I have fully thought out the specifics, but the overall idea that science needs to adapt organizational practices congruent with the scale on which it is now practiced (just as other sectors have adopted newer organizational methods to deal with their increasing scale) resonates very strongly with me.


  2. Charlie-
    Thanks for your insightful comments! It’s interesting to me (and unfortunate) that these problems steered you away from science. I must be one of those people with the passion you spoke of, so it took me years to see the situation as problematic, and yet more time to see it as fixable. I agree that being passionate clouds one’s judgment in terms of what conditions are acceptable. Another important side effect is that the most motivated scientists tend to seek absolute freedom, so that they can pursue whatever excites them most. And this brings me to your point– I think the pyramid scheme of academia (where being a professor is supposedly the ultimate goal of all people) stems from the fact that the job really is quite attractive, on paper. To be so free in what you are allowed to research would be an amazing opportunity. But what that really means is that you have absolute freedom to ask/order your lab members to study anything you want, which goes hand in hand with having the freedom to treat them any way you want.

    Anyway, I think you’re absolutely right that a different structure with more opportunities for mid-level researchers has the potential to be more efficient– IF they can be managed well. And I also agree that there is a lot of natural talent involved in making the switch from worker to leader. The problem we face is that if scientists aren’t naturally talented in management and don’t learn from their experience, there is no one around to fire them, reprimand them, or even let them know that there’s a better way of doing things. My only hope is that putting the information out there and making people aware that there is such a thing as objectively good management, some of those concepts might eventually be common knowledge.

  3. P.S. ^ That is clearly not me. I don't know why WordPress gives me the wrong avatar every time..

  4. Robert

    Hi Anna,

    Thanks very much for your article. I am a grad student trying to get a course about lab management started. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to access the syllabus to CNN 12712 online. Can you help by providing a course outline or syllabus? Any help is very much appreciated!

    Thanks very much,