Skip to content

Category: Leadership

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.

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.

The Right Stuff for Scientists: Courage and Property

Posted in Careers, Coaching, and Leadership

One little secret, for young scientists who haven’t discovered it yet: the most accomplished scientists are not necessarily the brightest people in the field. Creativity and dogged determination are important, but two qualities also distinguish great researchers — courage, and the ability to claim ownership of one’s domain of expertise.

The courage to fail, and the acknowledgment that public failure is a possibility, is critical for a highly successful career. You need to be willing to promote your theories, even though they may be wrong or may be misunderstood. As an extreme version of this, see Richard Feynman’s wonderfully titled book: What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character. Before you stick your neck out at a conference or in a publication, you need to get informal feedback from colleagues. Once you feel confident about your work, however, you need to take the risk that you may make a fool of yourself — even if you are right.

In order to gain this confidence, and to have earned it, you must be able to claim some turf in your scientific territory. Care enough about what you have observed and understand its scientific value well enough that you can claim it as your own. There’s a tricky balance here: you must feel so confident of your work that you can defend it, yet you must be flexible enough to yield if you are proven wrong with good reason. Too many well-known scientists have repeated their disproven theories at conferences long after their closest colleagues have quietly written them off.

Are you a genius whose work nobody understands, or are you a stubborn, intractable person who won’t admit that you are wrong? Your closest associates can help here, if you let them. Listen to their logic, trusting that at least they don’t intend to shipwreck your career for the sake of their own success.

Once you can properly own your accomplishments, courage will come more easily. Junior scientists should look to their seniors for examples and inspiration. Find people who have persevered despite repeated rejections and eventually remade their fields. And don’t be afraid to be afraid. The only way to build your courage is to acknowledge and then ignore the fear.