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Category: Careers

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.

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.

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.

What Does a Great Leader/Manager Look Like?

Posted in Tenure and Promotion

It’s hard to develop your leadership and management skills in science if you have never seen what a good leader looks like.  In my coaching with scientist clients who have worked under very accomplished PIs, I hear them talk about  leadership and management styles that are clearly dysfunctional and destructive.  It’s all too easy to imitate those styles if that’s all you have experienced and if you believe those styles helped account for the success of the PIs.  In fact, those styles may have been obstacles to greater success, and the PI might have succeeded despite, rather than because of, those styles.

The problem of identifying good leaders and managers in science is compounded by the fact that cultural stereotypes about leaders exist, thanks to movie and television depictions of despicable characters.  Leaders of companies are often portrayed as bad guys who are only out for themselves and are willing to exploit their employees whenever it pleases their selfish aims.  Recent press coverage of bank CEOs, which plays into this stereotype, only add to the confusion about what a leader, good or bad, looks like.

Fortunately, there are some excellent resources out there to help you understand great leadership and management in science.  Unlike some of the fluffy bestsellers in the business book section of your bookstore, these are based on actual studies of how good and bad leadership works in and out of the lab.

One of my favorites is a book by Alice M. Sapienza called Managing Scientists: Leadership Strategies in Scientific Research.  Sapienza works from extensive interviews with scientists about their experience with good and bad PIs.  I’ll summarize her findings in a subsequent blog post.  Graduate students in the sciences should be required to take a science management course, and this should be a required textbook.

If you haven’t read it, get the valuable free book produced by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the  Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty.  Finally, take a look at some of the books written by Kathy Barker, especially At the Helm: A Laboratory Navigator.

I will continue to list good resources of scientific leadership and management on my Still Point Coaching and Consulting website.  Future blog posts will discuss the essential elements of great leadership and management in the lab and beyond.  Stay tuned.

Can’t Change Your Ways? Try This

Posted in Tenure and Promotion


Why is it so hard to change?  We all want to do it, once we feel that discomfort between where we are in life and where we want to be. Sure, there are plenty of people out there who say they can help you.  Psychologists, psychiatrists, New Age gurus, consultants and coaches tap into this multimillion dollar market.  There’s enough conflicting advice out there to make you wonder whether there really is a proven way to alter your behavior in positive ways.

If you really want to know how to change, the best way to find out is to study people who have successfully made great changes in their lives.  This was the reasoning of James O. Prochaska, a research psychologist who wanted to help people to overcome very serious habits, especially alcoholism and smoking.

Prochaska was aware that different types of therapy helped different patients more than others.  Combining his understanding of successful self-changers and his knowledge of different psychotherapy models, he formulated what is now called the Transtheoretical Model of change.  Its two main tenets: successful behavioral change unfolds over a period of time according to six basic stages, and each stage is best supported by a different type of intervention.  Unlike so many other approaches, Prochaska’s model has had proven success in everything from drug addiction to weight loss, adolescent rehabilitation and cancer management. 

Let’s cut to the chase.  Here are the 6 stages, summarized so nicely in Wikipedia that I stole them:

1. Precontemplation – lack of awareness that life can be improved by a change in behavior

2. Contemplation – recognition of the problem, initial consideration of behavior change, and information gathering about possible solutions and actions

3. Preparation – introspection about the decision, reaffirmation of the need and desire to change behavior, and completion of final pre-action steps

4. Action – implementation of the practices needed for successful behavior change (e.g. exercise class attendance)

5. Maintenance – consolidation of the behaviors initiated during the action stage

6. Termination – former problem behaviors are no longer perceived as desirable (e.g. skipping a run results in frustration rather than pleasure)

Although the stages are progressive, in real life people usually move back and forth through these stages until they finally succeed.  Relapse is normal and expected.

An approach that emphasizes taking concrete action isn’t appropriate for  someone from precontemplation (Stage 1) to contemplation (Stage 2)  because the person isn’t ready.  However, a self-awareness technique, be it psychoanalysis or a simple self-assessment method, might move a person to the second stage.

A good change agent (therapist, coach, etc.) will be able to identify what stage you are in and use the approach that is most appropriate.

Interested in learning more?  Read Prochaska’s Change for Good.  If you are working with a change agent and you feel things aren’t moving forward, find out if the approach she is using matches your needs at your current stage.  For self-changers, use the Stages of Change framework to move yourself into more desirable behaviors and to understand yourself (empathically) when you are in a rut.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Posted in Tenure and Promotion

If coaching is all about helping you discover and achieve a better life at work and home, then trusting your dreams would seem to be terribly important. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert has some eye-popping news for people who believe they know what will make them happy. In his new book Stumbling on Happiness, Gilbert uses experimental studies to support a radical idea: if we really want to know what will make us happy, we are better off looking at what makes others happy instead of relying on introspection.

Gilbert claims that people are very bad at predicting their future happiness because they don’t account for how well they will adapt to new situations. Thus, they expect that both positive and negative events will have a much greater impact on their happiness than they will. For example, people who are eager to marry someone they love experience a blip of extra happiness (usually), but within two years their self-assessment of overall happiness is about where it was before marriage. Also, women who believe their life will be joyful if only they have a child eventually rate childcare on the same level of fulfillment as doing laundry.

When I went through formal training at a coaching school, a lot of emphasis was placed on helping clients discover their dreams. We were trained in helping clients through visualization exercises. This kind of thing seems to be fairly common in coaching training and practice. Gilbert’s work throws water on this notion.

So what consistently helps people to achieve greater happiness? A warm family and close friends is unrivalled. The satisfaction of making progress towards a worthy goal. Raises and increases in responsibility and status should be less valuable — at least after a certain level is achieved — than having more harmonious relationships with co-workers, mentoring, and leading teams towards a goal that they can collectively feel good about.

One lesson for coaches and their clients: if the stakes are always lower than the client imagines, reminding the client of this fact should help to reduce stress, leading to better performance.

Another Explanation of the Science Gender Gap

Posted in Tenure and Promotion

First Lady Astronaut Trainee (NASA)

The Boston Globe recently published an interesting article that provides a common sense account of why more women don’t go into science: they don’t want to.

Quoting several social scientific studies and interviews with their authors, the writer claims that the gender gap in science is greater in countries where women have more rights and overall freedom to choose their professions. She also cites other studies showing that women generally prefer working in people-intensive situations. In psychology, unlike the natural sciences, women outnumber men 10-1.

The findings of these studies have no bearing on whether women suffer from sexism in their scientific careers or whether women are typically discouraged from entering science. For anyone who has had children, the selective bias of girls from human relations and boys for tools seems obvious. Girls generally go for the dolls and boys head towards the trucks.

Perhaps if there’s a lesson to be learned from these studies, it is that science needs to be conducted in a more sociable, humane environment in order to attract more women. Men still set the rules of the game in science, and often it’s not pretty.