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What happens when a scientist becomes a manager?

The skewed world of academia presents a perplexing scenario for the scientists of today. After spending more than a decade gaining expertise in a scientific field and developing remarkable practical skills to gain the ability to think independently, they finally land up with their dream academic job. Then all of a sudden, they find themselves in the role of a manager!

To a scientist, curiosity helps spark innovation and make unknown con-nections. It allows joy to be derived from the smallest achievements, as long as it answers questions. Crazy ideas feed the curious mind leading to discovery. They also help a scientist take risks and not just sit by the fence (like our politicians!). A truckload of ambition helps scientists get through the many failures they encounter day after day and keep ‘the bigger picture’ in sight.

Of course, curiosity, the ability to think outside the box and great ambition are by no means the only virtues necessary to make a good scientist. However, in academia, it is widely believed that if these are possessed then any other virtues or skills can be easily acquired.

These ‘easy to acquire’ skills tend to include abilities to manage people, do excellent practical work and communicate at different levels with clarity. More often than not, these are the skills that tend to separate the wheat from the chaff. As it happens, despite their importance, little attention is paid towards helping scientists develop all these critical skills.

During their doctoral and post-doctoral work, scientists receive training that can contribute significantly in developing the practical and communication skills required for starting their independent research work. However, managerial skills are rarely ever given any emphasis. It is assumed that handling and executing their own project successfully, or even supervising a Master’s or PhD student, should be enough to learn good management skills. Yet that is rarely the case.

When laboratory-trained scientists are thrust into the responsibility of supervising a research group, they find themselves in a managerial role. As a group leader, the workload suddenly becomes more people-oriented. The discovery that what worked for them might not work for someone else can be unsettling. Holding effective meetings can be difficult and suddenly they might have to manage con-flicts amongst researchers. As one such scientist explained,  “taking on a leadership role can be a shock to the system”. Another lamented that it can be “like being pushed into cold water”.

Such situations result in having to learn management skills ‘on the job’. Lessons are often learned by making mistakes. These mistakes can include misunderstandings that are never cleared, ineffective methods of discussing results or even disrespect towards a student’s personal space. Of course, training could circumvent many of these mistakes.

For graduate students, the mistakes made by their supervisor could prove to be quite expensive. Lack of good communication between a supervisor and his or her student can lead to misunderstandings. The lack of an environment conducive to research can lead to loss of motivation. Without the right support, growth can be stunted in a fledgling researcher’s career, causing unnecessary stress and leading to decreased productivity. The losses to individual students get magnified when the whole research group suffers from these effects. Combined with a poor understanding of finances, this can mean disaster.

The PhD Comics’ character, Prof. Smith (the one with a beard and balding hair), is not such an exaggeration of what can happen if a supervisor never learns the vital management skills and continues with his old methods: it can be a graduate student’s worst nightmare.

Our understanding of the world and especially that of human behaviour has improved from just a few decades ago (when Prof. Smith graduated). Advances in psychology, human cognition and group behaviour have been translated into real life tools to help increase productivity and enhance the joy of working in a group. Simple techniques such as setting achievable goals, giving compliments and asking for feedback can and should be utilised when in a manager’s position.

Employees of large multi-national corporations attend expensive workshops and week-long retreats aimed at developing their managerial skills. The idea is to increase team productivity, eventually boosting the corporation’s profits. Similarly, tailoring such systems to an academic environment might help enhance the output of a university. And although a university does not have shareholders to please, it has a reputation to build and must eventually attract funding from its alumni.

Possessing key skills to successfully manage a career in research can be hugely beneficial to the researcher and the university. Therefore, it is clearly in their interest to ensure that the transition from a scientist to a manager happens smoothly and effectively.

Akshat Rathi is a DPhil student at the University of Oxford

Comments

This can be real life

Unfortunately the paragraph "For graduate students, the mistakes made by their supervisor could prove to be quite expensive. Lack of good communication between a supervisor and his or her student can lead to misunderstandings. The lack of an environment conducive to research can lead to loss of motivation. Without the right support, growth can be stunted in a fledgling researcher’s career, causing unnecessary stress and leading to decreased productivity. The losses to individual students get magnified when the whole research group suffers from these effects. Combined with a poor understanding of finances, this can mean disaster." totally describes the actual situation which I had during my Ph.D.... I hope that I'll meet good managers in future so that I could learn from them.

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