The missed opportunity

Just about every PhD or Post-Doctoral Fellow that I have spoken to, since arriving into the world of science*, doesn’t have great things to say about their training experience.

If you are one that does have good things to say, I’ll bet, you’re the exception.

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The comments that I hear are typically those which paint an image of a superior that doesn’t provide sufficient strategic direction, isn’t invested in the personal development of their subordinates, undermanages or micromanages, bullies, sets unreal expectations and doesn’t provide adequate resourcing for your learning (refer to www.phdcomics.com for others). This is then folded into a layer of laboratory, department and faculty politics. Overall, other than a new piece of paper and a line on the CV, it hasn’t been the most positive experience of their life.

But why? Why is it this way?

Surely a research organization that delivers positive training experiences is one that:

  • Can promote this as differentiator to attract top talent.
  • Has higher productivity and produces better science and better scientists (more funding?).
  • Has high satisfaction –> less time mediating conflict or managing bureaucratic process to monitor it.
  • Has a larger network of collaborators –> people want to stay in touch with their alma mater.

This is the missed opportunity and the solution is management and leadership training for our scientists and technologists.

Those of you not from science-land, are probably thinking that the repressive environment I described above closely resembles the ‘real world’ and not just the science-world. However, in a typical business environment, managers are trained to manage people.

It is commonly accepted that when situations arise due to poor management that there opportunities available to up-skill this person.

The question I pose is why aren’t these managers of scientists trained as such?

Scientists are trained to do science and not manage people. Labs rely on collaboration and delegation therefore it seems to me that managing people should be at the top of the list of requisite skills for a modern day scientist.

Weirdly, the first supervisory opportunity of a scientist is recognized as a significant step in the evolution their career, yet they are not given the skills to make this a success and to prepare them for the future.

Management skills, the ones that enable you to lead, manage and motivate people and projects are the new reagent for the lab.

Why hasn’t this been solved? In part, as this Nature article points out, it may be to do with scientists not respecting the management sciences. After-all they are a bit fluffy and touchy feely (I certainly used to feel this way as a scientist).

This problem hasn’t gone totally unheard or unseen. Some groups have been proactive towards developing a solution.

Finally, this isn’t just something established scientists should be doing, this is a graduate student and above requirement. After all, I was mentoring multiple undergraduate, interns and graduate students during my doctoral studies. Incentives are the key to all adoption so simply having a one off career development workshop that people are forced to attend is not the answer. Call it a fellowship, give people recognition, align it with career progression metrics, monitor outcomes and change direction when need.

University’s and research institutes become world leading because they have the best people. And the best people want to come to the best organizations. Capturing this opportunity can only help this mission.

*Also applies to engineering and technology fields.

Sources:

1. Leiserson & McVinney. Lifelong learning: Science professors need leadership training. Nature. 16 July 2015. Pg 279-281.

2. http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2005_07_15/nodoi.10761542531660850540

3. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v506/n7487/full/506159c.html

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