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Category: Administration

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.