Off the Bench: MGMT

What the heck is a discussion about management doing on Science is Sexy?  I manage, and my experience may help you as you manage.  Decent management allows me to keep the science, and pretty much everything else, sexy, thank you.  It’s an intermittent break from the events, science writing and general awesomeness that I have been working on recently, and will be appearing on this site over the next couple of months, but well worth pondering for those thinking about a career switch from bench science to an outreach/administration gig.

So, if you’re in the lab, you might think you don’t have much management experience. By this, I mean, experience that would qualify you to be a boss, manager, supervisor, etc. I assure you that you probably do have at least some experience by virtue of the fact that you have done one of the following (at a minimum):

1. Imposed some sort of schedule/workflow upon your efforts in an otherwise completely unstructured environment wherein your monthly workload was sufficient to occupy the time of four people on a 9-5 work schedule for a year
2. Mentored/managed an undergrad/junior grad student
3. Observed others in your lab whose management of undergrads/junior grad students left something to be desired
4. Learned from an advisor whose leadership skills were, shall we say, not so much

Let me take these point by point, and I’m focusing on the interpersonal aspect of management in this post.   No one really kicks your ass but you in grad school, and I think people take that kind of motivation and initiative for granted. You don’t want to kick people’s asses in a leadership position, but I do think you should continue to kick your own, on all fronts: staying on top of your field, staying creative, learning your organizational dynamics and respecting them, and getting a grip on the day-to-day, organizational stuff, while inspiring the people you manage.

Working with students is an amazing experience for helping you hone your management style.  Done right, you are attentive, helpful, encourage learning and scientific inquiry and experimentation, and help students you mentor stay positive when experiments aren’t working.  If you can get a grip on this while a graduate student, you are, at a minimum, on your way to being a halfway decent manager of others.

I’m not going to elaborate on point three.  You will come into contact with many, many people through your grad school/post-doc experience, and some are going to be great, and some, you will not love.  We all have stories, and all of them can help you do it right.  Or wildly wrong, depending on what you do with it.

Point four: Please see point three, above.

So, I’m not an expert, but here are my tricks and flicks for being a better supervisor:

1. Learn from crappy supervisors. Do the opposite of what they did to/with you.
2. Listen more than you speak. I really view my role as one in which I’m listening to what the people I work with need and try to be as responsive as I can be. I try to be a safe place to vent, advocate for them, and try and give them what they need.  Basically, I spend a lot of time listening for the best way to provide what people need to do their best.
3. Stay positive. People need to know that you’ve got a grip and that things are going to be okay. YOU have to set that tone.
4. If you need to give someone constructive criticism, a) make it constructive, and b) sandwich it between two things they are doing well. Nothing’s worse than getting a piece of criticism and feeling it’s all over your shoes.
5. I personally encourage teamwork and collaboration and discourage competition and propriety. This is based on previous history with individuals who made my worklife, shall we say, unpleasant, and it’s better to have people working together and feeling like they are part of a shared cause.
5. Encourage growth. Watch for people’s strengths and let them run in those directions while giving people tasks that will strengthen their weaknesses. Even better when you see that people can do this for each other.
6. Be willing to learn from the people you manage. You are a leader, but I’m betting the people you work with are as well-give them room to shine, ask for their feedback, definitely acknowledge that you’re leading a team, but understand that really good leadership is contingent on a staff that believes you and has ample room to grow in their own right.
7.Understand going in that, as great as your degree trained you to be a scientist, even with a good deal of outreach and some low-fi administrative experience, you will probably still have a pretty steep learning curve, particularly on the business end of things, and there is a business end (and I don’t mean that in a good, Flight of the Conchords way.  I mean that in a business school way, which very few scientists get).  Be okay with that, and if you’re concerned about it, take a class or two in business administration to get yourself ready.  Understand that you need to do a lot of work to get up to speed (but hell, you’re finishing or have finished your degree, it won’t be anything new for you.  Besides, if you are passionate about what you’re working on, you’re going to love doing this anyway).

8. Do your job well so that the staff you’re working with doesn’t have to worry that their manager isn’t doing what is expected.

0. All that said, be decisive when you need to be, and don’t be a pushover, either.  Nothing good is going to come of that.  You’re in a leadership position, so do what you need to do and act like it.

There is an essential skill that you may find extremely challenging, particularly after a Ph.D., and that would be the inclusion of others in your plans.  Graduate school breeds you to be fiercely independent.  Your project is yours-you guide it, you come up with the experiments, you draw endless (often incorrect) models, you drive it.  You might have collaborators, you might have people who do a thing or two to give you a hand at the end, but generally, you run the show.  Leaving the bench, in most settings, you will find that you need to have buy in-from your clients, or the departments, faculty and students you serve, or your investors.  There are many people you will need to involve.  So while you may come up with ideas, you will need to be way more inclusive in their execution.  My suggestion in this case is to start doing projects on the side (small, unintrusive ones) that require this as early as possible so that it is not such a culture shock when you switch from bench work to a different path.  It’s critical to the success of whatever you’re working on.

Do I sound like a hippy or something? Too Google-y?  Well, I don’t know what to tell you.  It seems that everyone leaves with at least a couple of battle scars, and some have a tougher run than others.  This is what I have learned in my first year away from my graduate program and into my new job.   A little time away showed me how much I took from grad school that is so priceless in terms of management.  Try to look at your experience and figure out what you want to take from your advisor, committee, and mentors, and what might be best left at the bench.

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