This topic is something I’ve thought about a lot as a scientist who has transitioned into management roles within scientific labs. Instead of just doing my research – which looks a lot like an ostrich with her head down in experiments or reading journal articles – I now deal with budgets, hiring, strategic planning, outreach and marketing, talking to the press, development of policy, managing legal agreement (like contracts establishing collaborations or to transfer biological materials from one lab to another), grant writing, manuscript writing, grant management, etc. I’m an incredibly flexible person and I work very hard to learn as quickly as possible, but for many of these skills it was a steep learning curve. And this challenge doesn’t just apply to me or my colleagues who “left the lab bench”. Any other PhD student who someday wants to have their own lab, all of the above skills are important because anyone running a lab isn’t just doing research – they are managing people, their budgets, and their public reputation. Even researchers who aren’t yet at the point of having their own lab often have graduate students or technicians “working” for them, so knowing how to work with and manage people and your money is critical.
Earlier this week, this was all brought to the forefront when I received an email from the Assistant Dean of my graduate school. She noticed that I wasn’t in the lab anymore and asked me “What do I wish I would have known before starting [my management job]?” Much of what I would have liked to know were practical skills. Budgeting and managing a budget are still two of my biggest challenges, mostly because I have little experience reading or understanding financial spreadsheets (it took me two weeks not to get “crediting” and “expensing” confused when talking about my accounts). I have developed skills in how to manage people, but having some basic background skills would have been beneficial before I starting actually doing it. I would have also loved to learn how to do basic market analysis or strategic planning.
So you may be asking yourself, if these skills are so important to any PhD student who plans on running their own lab or not, why aren’t they taught in graduate school? I’ve always thought that PhD programs should have a mini-MBA component to truly prepare students for what they will be up against when they start managing. But graduate school is a place where teaching you how to be a good scientist and researcher is the number on priority. Also, your teachers and mentors are all PhDs who have their own labs and were never taught any management skills. I’m sure they are thinking “if I can figure it out, so can everyone else”. But that’s really the issue – not everyone is naturally good at managing a lab or people. This leads to labs that mis-spend money, have disgruntled staff, and aren’t nearly as efficient and effective as they could be just because of management.
So this is my call to all graduate students, post-docs, lab directors, and administrators – start teaching students the management skills that they will need to thrive and succeed! Not only will this produce more productive scientists and labs, but will help develop the next generation of scientists who are ready to tackle any new management job or task before them!