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Probe Your History to Improve Your Research

Posted in Tenure and Promotion

For many of us, planning begins by examining what we are working on, thinking about next steps, and maybe imagining an unanswered question from the literature that we can now address.   However, one of my most productive clients takes a different tact. When considering where to go with his work, he has the habit of examining the origin of his projects, reconstructing the major benchmarks and turning points in the research, and evaluating his past performance at every major step of the way.  Sometimes these historical reconstructions can go back twenty years.

I first thought this habit was both unusual and unnecessary.  I was also surprised that, despite being the world’s leader in his field and a major player in the world of science at large, he didn’t seem to plan very much.  Unlike many researchers, he doesn’t fixate on his future results and possible alternatives.  He has a sharp instinct about outcomes, but he doesn’t get frazzled if his expected results don’t materialize.  In fact, he rather enjoys it.

Why is this scientist’s approach so successful?  Here are a few thoughts.

He sees his life and performance in terms of the long arc of personal history.  By reconstructing from past to present, he learns about the trends in his world and in his thinking –about both scientific  and political matters.  He learns more about himself – his strengths, his weaknesses and how he has to grow to meet new challenges.  By looking to the past, he discerns how to close doors in his research life, which frees up mental space, personnel and money needed to open new doors.  He doesn’t benchmark his future, but by benchmarking his past he has a sense of the rhythm of history, both for his lab and his work life.  Perhaps most importantly, he finds out what works.  He uses history to test his hypotheses about how the future will work.  For example, if he knows that a postdoc has been careless in so many different ways but has been a good team player, he might have her play a different role in the lab.  That role may not have even come to mind if he was only looking at current research projects and extrapolating.

Scientists often have a way of mentally separating their lab’s research projects from the personnel.  This can lead to trying to figure out where the project should go and then coaxing the lab members to take it there.  In contrast, my client sees the project, the people, and the lab environment as more of an organic whole. By looking at successes and failures through the lens of history, he has learned that a lab is only as good as the people who plan and conduct the experiments.  Although he thinks about the science on its own, he quickly returns to addressing the scientist and her science as one unit.  He has learned that you don’t manage projects; instead, you start by mentoring the scientists to get the projects done, and each scientist has highly individual motivations and skills; the very best bench researchers may even turn the project into a very different, unexpected and more fruitful direction.  Knowing this, my client gets to know his postdocs very well, even though he has a large lab, and he involves them in most every scientific decision he makes about their project.  As a result, everything seems to move very slowly, but by the end of the year 8-10 new papers appear in the top journals.

This long view of lab history has paid off for my client in terms of learning when and how to initiate new projects, add or subtract an area of research, and fit new lab members with projects, some of which have been rattling around in his mind for more than a decade. By looking at history, he spots problems and omissions and mentally bookmarks them, ready when the opportunity appears to address them.  Finally, by examining his past behavior as a researchers and leader, he can make decisions in the present with greater confidence — armed with appreciation that most decisions are only data points on the long arc of his scientific career.

Grooming the Research Scientist as the PI’s COO

Posted in Administration, Leadership, and Productivity

If your lab has more than 5-6 people, you are probably missing a very important person. Given the growth in administrative, managerial and financial responsibilities for PIs, some are realizing that they should have a good second in command in their lab — not a lab manager, but a research-administrator who can do their own research, keep an eye on things when the PI is traveling, and offer a good source of counsel and advice when the PI is planning research and funding.

This need comes at a time when many good postdocs will find it impossible to find a faculty job. If they love academic research and don’t want to head to pharma, having a place in a very successful lab where they can have a good deal of freedom can be very tempting. Being a researcher-administrator, who acts like a COO of the lab, can be a great position for the right type of person. They don’t have to chase after grants, negotiate with editors, or deal with departmental politics in the way that the PI must do. They can do more high level lab work than the PI does.

A number of my clients in growing labs would like to hire such a person if they can find them. Some already have such people, and in most cases this situation has worked out well. For a researcher-administrator, there is room for growth both within the lab and in higher levels of academic research administration at the university or medical school level. There is also the opportunity to publish, go to meetings, and otherwise own their research, without bearing the risks or pressures that the PI must shoulder.

Some postdocs are resistant to taking on such roles, being concerned that they would be viewed as failed scientists. In fact, I know researcher-administrators who publish in Nature, Science, and other top journals as first authors. When labs and institutions acknowledge the great value of the researcher-administrators, treat them as people who have a unique set of skills, and pay them well, this role will become increasingly attractive. Perhaps the role should be titled Associate Investigator.

If you want such a COO in your lab, I suggest you advertise it properly and positively play up the value of the administrator role, which might take 20-25% of their time. It is often better to hire someone from the start with this role in mind than to promote a postdoc or research scientist in your lab and gradually transfer these responsibilities to them, unless they are mature and knowledgeable enough to face the diminished status, relative to their dreams of heading a lab, face-on.  The candidate should understand that good people skills and financial responsibility are as important to a lab’s success as doing great research.

If you find such a person, nurture them and keep them!  It will pay off well in terms of your time, stress, and productivity as well as the overall success of your laboratory.

Why Are Your Lab Members So Slow?

Posted in Leadership, and Productivity

One of the hardest problems that PIs contend with is the lab member who is inexplicably slow. Experiments don’t seem to get done at all, or they get done one at a time when there is time to run them in parallel.

Before you give up or force them to leave, you should determine whether your expectations are fair. It’s natural for a PI to expect her lab members to be as productive as they were in their own training days. However, that is also an unfair expectation. You were probably a better lab trainee than most of the people you will ever have in your lab; you met the high standards that enabled you to become a research professor. There are 7.4 billion flavors of people in the world. Why should you expect anyone to be just like you?

Assuming that your expectations are fair, how do you diagnose and possibly treat slowness in a lab member? I’m going to suggest a checklist of questions to pursue, either by asking the person, observing their behavior, or asking other people who work with this person.

1) Is slowness due to a lack of knowledge of methods? Are they less trained than you thought they were? If so, are they reluctant to ask for training?

2) Is slowness due to lack of understanding of how to experiment pragmatically? Are they repeating their experiments too many times, due to fear of failure? Do they believe that they can only pursue one line of experiment at a time, when you know that they could be testing several approaches simultaneously? Have they failed to grasp organizational principles involved with setting in motion many different tasks?

3) Do they have attentional issues or cognitive problems that limit their ability to envision experiments or juggle tasks?

4) Are they incapable of doing what you expect because they are fearful of making their own decisions?

5) Do they have persistent personal problems or mood disorders that make it difficult for them to care about their work or to focus?

You can assess the first two causes fairly easily, simply by observing them or asking them questions. With respect to the last three potential causes, you might be able to test for them by considering whether there have been times when this person performed their work quickly and efficiently. If that is the case, you can rule out cognitive and attentional issues as the sole cause. To test whether they are fearful about taking responsibility, you can watch their behavior when you ask them to tell you which of various strategies to pursue. If you observe evidence of fear, or you see other situations where they don’t take responsibility for decisions when most people would, you may have isolated a factor.

As far as personal problems or mood disorders are concerned, sometimes a caring conversation will help you determine whether these factors are in play. If they have recently lost a relationship, sometimes a well-timed vacation or sabbatical (paid or unpaid) may help them to pull together. If you expect mood disorders and they trust you, you might suggest that they get counseling. If mood disorders are evident, you may have to adjust their work setting or how you interact with them if you believe they can still do a good job in the lab.

There are no magic answers for these problems, and some of these factors may appear together. However, by knowing the causes of slowness you can train them, accommodate them, or make the difficult decision about whether they should leave. In all cases, careful attention and compassion is the way to go.

Promotion and Tenure Procedures: Stop Keeping Faculty in the Dark

Posted in Tenure and Promotion

A number of my clients are now going through the process of promotion or tenure evaluation. None of these faculty understand the specifics about the process.  Yes, they know about the general procedures, but in every case the timing and the details of each step are not clear.

I can understand why a certain amount of privacy is important during the tenure/review process .  However, I have known of situations — including situations where people were denied tenure — when a more transparent explanation of the procedures would have made the difference between success and failure.  In at least one case, faculty under evaluation could have made a stronger case for themselves, as evidenced by recently accepted papers, etc. In another case, a botched review process would have been more evident, and corrections might have been made.

Apart from the issue of fairness, great transparency may go a long wait toward easing the anxieties of faculty undergoing review. It can help them determine when and how to go on the job market, what they should discuss with their family and colleagues, and how they might legitimately influence the review process if there is still time to provide new information about progress.

Keeping faculty in the dark during the review process does nothing for the faculty under consideration and certainly increases discourages people who may be tempted to leave academic science for industry.  This needs to change, and it can be changed.

Why Scientific Training Urgently Needs Reform

Posted in Biotech, Careers, Education, and Scientists

PhD degrees were originally granted to train students to conduct research in a specific field of study.  Postdoctoral fellowships were instituted to help the PhD graduate go deeper into an area of research, under the mentorship of a senior investigator.  In life and biomedical science, universities and medical schools considered their job done when competent, scholarly experimentalists graduated from their programs.  These young scientists had the credentials to conduct research in a university, medical school, or research-based company.

Compared to today, research was fairly simple and cheap. Much of the work was done by small, highly specialized groups. Publishing one’s findings was a fairly straighforward enterprise, and peer review was far easier. Funding was increasingly available for graduates at universities and industry, thanks to the growth in government sponsorship of research and the booming knowledge economy.

Enter the world of Big Science. In this brave new world, postdocs and doctoral students are increasingly viewed as cheap labor by Principal Investigators, who have little incentive to do proper mentoring – not just scientific mentoring, but teaching all of the skills required to succeed as a Principal Investigator. Consequently, young scientists emerge from their training woefully unprepared for their careers.

What exactly do Principal Investigators do today?  Many spend the majority of their time doing work that has little to do with actual bench science.  They write grant proposals and articles, and they oversee people, projects and budgets.  They review articles and grant proposals, give presentations, and make various efforts to obtain a piece of the shrinking research funding pie.  Good scientific results often come from interdisciplinary teams working with highly specialized equipment and techniques. Senior PIs, didn’t grow up in this world.  It’s no wonder that PhDs and postdocs don’t get the preparation they need.  The teachers were never taught.

In fact, successful PIs in academia, like their counterparts in industry, need to be good leaders, managers, writers and speakers.  They need to interact and communicate not just with others in their own subspecialty, but across multiple disciplines. These are not auxiliary skills that can be adequately addressed by a few optional seminars and workshops, or by reading books and manuals.  It’s at the heart of the profession.  Learning these skills should become part of the core curriculum at graduate school and should be enhanced at the postdoctoral level by attentive PIs.  Students, postdocs, and faculty need to have this professional training considered in grading, evaluations and promotions.

Why isn’t such training taking place now?  PIs, along with deans and other administrators, often see few or no incentives for implementing such changes. Success in science is largely measured by the ability to get grants and publish in top-tier journals.

Meanwhile, PhD’s in the life and biomedical sciences are finishing their programs with dismal academic job prospects; only about 30% of postdocs get positions in academia. And many of these job seekers lack the skills required to step into projects in industry.  When they finish, they should be qualified to manage every aspect of a lab, either as a PI in academia or as a project manager in industry.  Vast sums of money are wasted in training cadres of unemployable scientists at a time when jobs are scarce in the Academy and Industry desperately needs good science managers.

A courageous university could see opportunity in this sad situation.  An institution that grooms its postgraduates and postdocs to be highly employable, successful leaders, managers and scientific team-builders could attract better students and enjoy more substantial support from industry. It could pioneer the transformation of the curriculum and laboratory into an environment that trains scientists as full professionals, not just experimentalists. Accordingly, this school would have great bragging rights, which attracts additional funding.

Initiating these needed reforms would not be easy.   The changes need to take place from the Presidents and Deans on down.  PhD candidates and postdocs also need to pressure their institutions from the bottom up, insisting that they get the full training they need to succeed in their profession.  Investing in this type of reform, which would entail fundamental changes in expectations about PIs and their lab members, is a courageous choice, one that would improve the productivity of our universities, medical schools, pharmaceutical companies and the national economy.


Is Your Lab Filled with Students or Scholars?

Posted in Careers, Leadership, Productivity, and Scientists

If you are the PI of a research lab, you probably have one or more people in your lab who want to be PIs but will never make it. Whether they are PhD candidates or postdocs, they don’t have what it takes, even though you may not be able to put your finger on what they lack. So how do you address it?

First, you need to recognize the difference between a student and a scholar. Most people who major in science as undergraduates love to learn about nature and are enamored about the process of scientific investigation. They had discovered at a young age that scientists ask and answer questions that open the doors to mysteries — everyday mysteries about bugs and plants they see in the yard, as well as the mysteries of the universe. That passion for learning about nature, and the tools that science provides, can turn a young man or woman into a great student of nature. Scientific training, for the most part, prepares people to become knowledgeable students, not scholars. In fact, scholarship isn’t even expected at most institutions until midway into a PhD program. In contrast, only the most aggressive scholars will become successful scientists, particularly in academia. Few students of science have either the capacity or interest to become even mediocre scientific scholars.

A student is a person who acquires knowledge. A scholar generates knowledge. In addition to being a great student, a scholar must be obsessed with finding and answering important questions that have never been properly addressed. A scholar must be creative, aggressive, tolerant of personal failure, obsessive, and patient enough to put up with a great deal of frustration. When they fail, they must be willing to understand the root of their failure and accommodate, either by acquiring new skills or bringing people into their labs who can supply such skills. Scholars take risks, sometimes great risks, and the best scholars always have the “killer instinct”: once they identify an important question and a path that is reasonably likely to lead them to the answer, they never give up. Never.

So when you look at people in your lab — and when you look at yourself — ask whether you see a person who is content to learn and add to the known in small ways, or whether you see a relentless explorer: a scholar who needs to create knowledge out of mysteries.

I would argue that it is cruel to let a grad student or postdoc toil in your lab for years, harboring the delusion that they can be scholars, when they don’t show the innate interest and drive to generate new knowledge about important questions. If you humor them or coddle them, you are only setting them up for failure when they attempt to become an independent investigator. Instead of spending years under this delusion, they could be preparing for careers where being a great student of science has tangible rewards. They could make important contributions in industry, where the questions are relatively well defined. They could teach science at different levels, work in science communications, or do other things where they can feed their lifelong love of learning.

So when you see students in your lab who can’t become scholars, don’t mistake your lack of courage for compassion and foster their fantasies. Tell them what you see, and help them to transition to a career where they will succeed. Then find the young scholars who can make better use of your precious lab space. Everyone will win.

Cognitive Bias: A Follow-Up

Posted in Leadership, Productivity, and Scientists

My last post described the problem of cognitive bias on a personal level, especially with respect to self-esteem issues that can be countered with cognitive behavioral techniques.  However, there are a number of general cognitive biases that distort our judgments and decisions.  Some of these biases are so deeply ingrained in our culture that we practice them daily and take them for granted.  Awareness of these biases is a first step to overcoming them.  Here is a list, which I keep by my desk and consult from time to time.  How many of these do you practice?

For Better Decisions, Counter Cognitive Bias

Posted in Leadership, Productivity, and Scientists

In my last post, I encouraged scientists to trust their gut instincts more when making certain types of decisions, for example those involving leading and managing other people.   However, while intuitions can work well when evaluating others, they can be misleading when evaluating one’s self.  Some innate cognitive biases prevent us from forming a clear and realistic picture of what the future will hold if we take a particular course of action, and other biases cause us to overestimate the opinions others have of us.  These biases are documented and explained in psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness.

Gilbert claims that we overrate how well we know ourselves, underestimate our capacity to adapt to both good and bad situations, and fail to consider crucial factors that will play out in the future.   Gilbert blames these illusions on the cognitive limitations of the imagination, which also lead people to believe they differ from others more than they actually do.  According to Gilbert, looking at what makes others happy provides a more reliable indicator of your own potential happiness than imagining yourself in a future situation.  The takeaway message: learn to be more objective about yourself and about the decisions you make concerning your career trajectory. Rely less on your own imagination; instead, study what works for others.

In tandem with this approach, I suggest that you apply rationality in a new and different way when you find that self-doubts and fears interfere with carrying out your decisions. Use reason to challenge semi-conscious, self-destructive thoughts as they spontaneously arise.  For example, a scientist who submitted a paper to a journal several weeks ago might view the lack of response as a sign that the journal didn’t like the paper.  In fact, the journal may simply be delayed by a deluge of submissions.  The remedy in this case is to challenge the little voice that says “I knew it wasn’t good enough.  I can’t meet that journal’s standards.  I’m only fooling myself.” Mentally respond like a clever defense attorney, in effect saying, “What evidence do I have that the paper wasn’t good enough?  Could there be other reasons why I haven’t heard from the editors?  If I was incapable of meeting the journal’s standards, why would my colleagues who have published there encourage me to submit the manuscript?”  Then, instead of worrying, contact the editor and find out why you haven’t received word on your article. By learning to notice and then challenge these self-destructive thoughts, you can diminish their influence and replace them with a more evidence-based point of view.

This method of logically challenging self-destructive thinking is used in cognitive-behavioral therapy to treat depression, but it can have powerful applications off the couch as well.  For more about the theory, its empirical foundations, and how to apply it to your situation, I recommend Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism.

Combining the message of this blog post with the previous one, consider this proposition: you probably don’t trust your intuitions about others as much as you should, and you probably trust your intuitions about yourself more than you should.  You can achieve a better balance between the use of intuition and the use of reason in your judgments by judicious use of methods recommended by Gilbert and Seligman.  Working with a good professional coach can help you jumpstart this process, make changes more quickly, and apply your skills more effectively as a leader and manager.

In Defense of Gut Feelings

Posted in Careers, Leadership, and Productivity

When young scientists are starting to build their careers, they are usually advised to seek a mentor. A good mentor can help in many ways. However, they can’t impart some of the essentials that young investigators may need the most, especially the skills used to identify and work successfully with talented people. Fortunately, we have an underutilized resource literally under our noses. In my experience with very senior investigators, the ones who have had the greatest success in leading and managing have learned to pay close attention to their literal gut feelings, even when they can’t explain the reasons behind these feelings.

Gut feelings are felt in the belly, which is rich in serotonin receptors. We pay close attention to our gut feelings when someone strongly disgusts us. But if we attend to these feelings more closely on a daily basis, the gut can be a subtle and reliable source of social intelligence. As part of the brain-gut axis, it is referred to by some neurogastroenterologists as a “second brain.” Working together, these two coordinated “brains” combine our stored cognitions of people with immediate perceptions.

It may seem strange and even counterintuitive (ironically) for a scientist to pay such close attention to “subjective” reactions. However, these feelings provide a valuable and complementary source of knowledge to the questioning and analysis you must undertake when working with people in lab settings – and in the world beyond the lab. The use of gut feelings when making decisions can’t be taught, but it can certainly be learned. In my next post I will describe how to take advantage of such feelings in a common situation for scientists, evaluating potential postdocs.

Elements of Great Scientific Leadership

Posted in Tenure and Promotion

When I was speaking about leadership virtues to a group of junior researchers at a leading pharma company, audience members raised examples of eminent scientists who were abusive, dishonest, manipulative or simply absent from the laboratory. How did these people get into positions of leadership and get their labs to do world class research?

The answer is fairly simple. When it comes to promotions in academia, what goes on in the lab stays in the lab as long as strong papers are published and grant money keeps rolling in. Even in corporate labs, evaluations are primarily based on lab performance against goals. If the lab is successful but the head is a dictator, that bad behavior can be overlooked if it is noticed at all.

Alice Sapienza’s book, Managing Scientists: Leadership Strategies in Scientific Research, offers a glimpse of what good scientific leadership really looks like. She asked 147 experienced scientists, most of whom were in the life sciences and half of whom were in industry, how they would describe the best scientific leaders they had worked with. Interestingly, only about 15% cited the leader’s technical prowess as an important characteristic. Good communication, management and organizational skills topped the list. Being a good role model, mentor, or coach took second place as important characteristics possessed by strong scientific leaders they have known.

Here are some more characteristics of a strong scientific leader, based both on my client experience and the results of Sapienza’s poll: excellent listening skills, practiced with all lab members at all levels; a willingness to admit mistakes; appreciation of social, ethnic, and gender differences and how they contribute to a wider view of the scientific enterprise; an intuitive knowledge about how much independence each researcher requires and for how long; and the ability to handle conflict decisively but tactfully.

In other words, good scientific leadership is like good leadership in business and politics. Provide vision in an understandable way, supervise flexibly, ensure that morale is good, practice what you preach, etc. But lab heads who strive to practice these virtues often stumble when their lab members aren’t following the vision or are just being unproductive. How do you hold people accountable to hard metrics without treating unproductive workers as though they are faulty machines? How do you tell them their work is unacceptable without unnecessarily hurting their feelings or embarrassing them?

In brief, you need first to be sure that you can separate the projects from the people, seeing the steps to completion in a purely objective way. Then you learn to criticize the work without criticizing the person. This is not an easy task. I’ll introduce you to a few successful strategies in an upcoming post.