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Month: May 2016

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.