Managing Scientists

Christina Hull chuckles when asked where scientists acquire their interpersonal skills. She acquired hers the same way most scientists do: They were thrust upon her when she started her laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Suddenly she was the boss, faced with the daily challenges of motivating students, negotiating with peers in committee meetings, resolving conflicts in the lab, and a dozen other tasks that require what are broadly called “people skills.”

Hull acknowledges that possessing good management ability is essential to productive scientists, but she received no formal management training prior to taking the reins. Her experience is not unusual. Fully half of U.S. postdoctoral scientists responding to a 2003 Sigma Xi survey said that they had received no training in lab or group management, and nearly all the rest had received only ad hoc or “on-the-job” training. Most wanted formal training in lab management, but only 4% had attended a workshop or done formal coursework.

Even established senior scientists recognize the disconnect. “Science is odd in some ways,” says Robert Doms, chair of the Department of Microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “You spend all your time as a student and postdoctoral fellow learning how to be a good experimentalist. Then you become an independent scientist, and if you are successful, before long you are no longer doing experiments because you don’t have any time, and personnel management becomes a major issue.”

Like many scientists, Doms modeled his management style on that of his scientific mentor, Ari Helenius, a virologist at Yale University School of Medicine, whose style Doms admired. The ad hoc method can work sometimes, but it’s hit-or-miss.

“There are some horrible pathologies in some labs in the relationships,” says Edward O’Neil, director of the Center for the Health Professions at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), who offers laboratory management workshops throughout the United States. “People stay because they are inspired by the science, but they leave the training in some of these labs really wounded people. … Then they will use that as a model for leadership.”

In his workshops, O’Neil tries to get scientists to change their behavior by asking them to frame a hypothesis. For example, “If I stop yelling at my technician when he makes a mistake and work together to correct the problem, he will finish experiments more quickly and completely.” Then, O’Neil asks them to collect and analyze data to see if the data fit the hypothesis.

Becoming an effective leader

Success in science is often measured by number of publications, citations, and similar metrics. But when Alice Sapienza, a chemist with a Ph.D. in organizational behavior who is now at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts, asked experienced scientists what qualities they most admire in a scientific leader, she got a very different answer.

Sapienza says her research suggests that the best leaders are those with the best people skills. She surveyed more than 200 scientists and engineers from the United States, Europe, and Asia, asking them to describe the most effective scientific leader they knew. Leading the list were people of “caring and compassion,” followed by those who “possess managerial skills” such as effective communication and conflict resolution. Technical skill was a distant third.

Another common misperception among scientists, she says, is that managing people in a laboratory environment is somehow different from managing people in other types of workplaces. “People are people,” Sapienza says. “There’s a very short list of things that go wrong when people work together.”

So how do you make sure those things don’t go wrong? “There is no easy fix,” she says. “It should not be surprising that it will take time to become an expert in the discipline of interpersonal behavior.”

Carl Cohen, co-author of the book Lab Dynamics: Management Skills for Scientists (and a former Science Careers contributor), recommends taking short courses in management and reading books such as William Ury’s Getting Past No, which he found invaluable in developing negotiation skills. There’s a whole literature out there, he says, that can be very helpful.

O’Neil recommends yearly performance evaluations for everyone in the lab, including the lead investigator, using what’s known as a 360-degree evaluation in which people give and get constructive feedback from supervisors and those they supervise. This kind of assessment taught Sapienza that she needed to be more explicit with her students and postdocs in setting goals and expectations.

Formalizing training

Not long after her trial by fire at Wisconsin, Hull, a former Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) Career Award recipient, got a taste of formal training when she participated in a 5-day lab management “boot camp” sponsored by BWF and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Chevy Chase, Maryland, in 2005.

“I decided to go to [the course] grudgingly,” she acknowledges. “I wasn’t sure it was worth a week of my time.” She feared the course would be a bunch of “business-speak” that didn’t apply to the issues she faced in the lab. But by the end of the course, she was glad she had come. She says she valued hearing the collective expertise of experienced scientists who had been through the same issues she faced, and she learned enough about her own personality and management style to make changes she says have improved her skills as mentor and manager.

“I realized there were some things I was doing that my lab expected me to do differently,” she says. “My students pointed out that I don’t manage interruptions well–that I allow them to interrupt me too much. I thought that was interesting because I was very much into my open-door policy. When I became more protective of my time, they respected my time more.

Peter Bruns, vice president for grants and special programs at HHMI, says that HHMI is unlikely to offer the lab leadership course again. Instead, the institute is trying to disseminate its model by “training the trainers”: teaching the nuts and bolts of how to run such courses to a core group of 17 interested professional societies and universities that want to offer them.

HHMI gave small seed grants to each partner and asked for evaluation data from the workshops. In aggregate, more than 90% of respondents who participated in the courses said that they would recommend them to a colleague, according to Maryrose Franko, senior program officer at HHMI.

Michelle Hermiston, a new assistant professor of pediatric hematology at UCSF, took a laboratory leadership course offered by UCSF’s office of postdoctoral education this past spring. “I’m a huge cheerleader for the leadership course. I found it extremely useful, as did all of my friends who also took it,” she says. She particularly appreciated the tips on how to assess work styles and how to ask difficult questions about potential weaknesses during the hiring process. “For many of us who have been trained in science, learning how to do those things can be challenging.”

Hermiston says that the course has already had an effect in her lab. Her technician told her recently that she has become much more open to feedback and said how nice it has been not to have to guess what she is thinking. “I’ve become much more cognizant of what level of hands-on management people need at different stages of their training,” she says. “It’s probably changed some of my behaviors for the better in that I give and ask for feedback more often.”

There is still some skepticism on the part of supervisors, and some people believe that the money would be better spent elsewhere. But the program seems to be having an effect. “We’re probably about halfway there in terms of getting transferable skills into Ph.D. programs,” says Iain Cameron, head of the Research Careers and Diversity Unit within Research Councils UK. “We’ve made a huge amount of progress since 2003, but we’ve still got some way to go.”

Such skepticism is not confined to the United Kingdom. When Elizabeth Ellis, director of Graduate Training in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Strathclyde, U.K., gave a talk on the U.K.’s integrated-training model at an Association of American Medical Colleges meeting last year, she encountered skepticism there as well. “There seemed to be some resistance to mov[ing] towards skills-based training in the U.S., and there was little understanding of why transferable skills were needed,” she writes in an e-mail.

Brian Schwartz, a physicist and vice president for research and sponsored programs at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, has been co-teaching courses on business skills for scientists for 10 years. Schwartz says students and postdocs are often savvier than their supervisors about the need for such skills in the job market. He advises students to take such courses throughout their graduate careers. “Even while getting a Ph.D., take some other courses,” he says. “A lot of students say, ‘But my thesis adviser won’t allow me.’ I say ‘Don’t tell ’em.’ “

“Scientists have to learn that it’s not the science they’re managing, it’s the people who are doing the science that they’re managing,” says Sapienza. “Sometimes that’s a quantum leap for people to understand.”

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Photos courtesy of the subjects.

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