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Management: A Crash Course for Scientists

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Even when you’re prepared for transitions, most aren’t easy. Sometimes, not knowing what lies in store can work to your advantage; often, however, it’d be nice to know what to prepare for. For postdocs moving on to first-time faculty positions, this transition comes not only with increased research responsibilities, but a whole set of required skills that most have to learn as they go.

While many postdocs are competent scientists, these professors-to-be are often left floundering as they try to straddle a diverse set of skills more common among successful entrepreneurs. In addition to setting up and running their own experiments, they must also squeeze in — and in most cases, learn — lab management, grantwriting, and teaching.

Maryrose Franko, a program officer in the graduate grants department at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, knew that her postdocs needed something besides just the science training they were getting. Upon surveying HHMI alumni — postdocs who had moved from HHMI to academic posts — it became clear to Franko that what they needed before making the jump was high-level career counseling and management training. They initially felt daunted by the entrepreneurial and managerial aspects of their junior-level faculty positions, and had been “absolutely unprepared for that,” Franko recalls.

“It’s all hit or miss, right?” she says. “You know what’s wrong by what’s been done to you. But you don’t know how it should be done.” So, even though faculty members are hired primarily for their research ability — both proven and potential — their success ultimately depends upon how well they can run a business. Hiring, time management, and project management skills all come into play.

As a collaborative effort sponsored by HHMI and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Franko helped lead a five-day seminar in scientific management training in 2002 for about 130 senior postdoctoral fellows and new faculty associated with the Fund and HHMI. The conference’s main points were compiled into a book, which was revised in 2005, titled Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty. HHMI has since recruited numerous partner organizations, including universities and professional societies, to train scientists in how to give the course to their own postdocs. This initiative led to another manual, Training Scientists to Make the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Developing Programs in Scientific Management.

New Skill Set

Making the Right Moves covers a lot of ground, such as job negotiation, lab management, time management, writing grants, getting published, collaboration, and technology transfer. Some of the most well-received portions have addressed time management and lab building skills.

“One of the things I got the most out of was the focus on time management — how to really optimize your productivity in terms of moving your research forward in the presence of all the distractions,” says Brent Stockwell, assistant professor of biological sciences at Columbia University. He took the first seminar in 2002, and then came back as a speaker for the second.

Some of the most critical points he took away from the course revolved around time management and project management. Starting up and building a lab, he says, are also important. Today, he says he spends about 75 percent of his time doing research — including managing projects — and 25 percent on non-research-related work, such as mentoring and administrative tasks.

“The most important thing you do as a new faculty member is picking the big idea of the lab, and picking the people [to work on them],” Stockwell says. “Usually you have your idea, but picking the right people is so important.”

Learning how to select the best résumés, and then how to distill out the keepers through interviews, was a process Stockwell says he refined over time. As trial and error gave way to experience, he came to believe that great researchers need not just great skills, but great mentorship.

“In the beginning I used to think you could make great people, but I don’t think you can do that,” he says. “In the end, you can pick the potentially good researchers, and cultivate what’s there.”

Hopi Hoekstra, an associate professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard University, also took the first course and came back to speak at the second. Hoekstra found the focus on management training to be extremely helpful, especially in light of the relative lack of training most postdocs get in management skills and mentoring techniques.

“It can be quite intimidating,” Hoekstra says of managing laboratory technicians, students, and postdocs. “It could make or break you, being able to do it well and do it efficiently.”

Hoekstra is currently in the process of moving her lab from the University of California, San Diego, to Harvard, and she says that the course really helped her think about what had to be done at the outset in order to avoid future problems. “Invest a little time in [the] beginning and it can have huge payoffs,” she says.

Lacking funding for another full-blown HHMI-sponsored course, Franko says it’s up to the partner institutions to continue spreading the word at their own seminars. Managerial skills for scientists can benefit everyone, from postdocs moving into faculty positions to experienced researchers taking industry jobs.

Hoekstra is certainly a believer. “Management plays a key role in your success,” she says.

Making the Right Moves is available to download for free at http://www.hhmi.org/resources/labmanagement. You can also request a hard copy from HHMI.

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