Some collected thoughts on the challenges of Principal Investigators as managers

All opinions my own or of non-Novo Nordisk colleagues, and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

A few months ago, Uschi Symmons on her blog posted an essay (see link below) on why Principal Investigators (PIs) at academic institutions are sometimes less than optimal as bosses. That reminded me quite a bit of conversations I’ve had over the years with colleagues in research, and spurred me to send out a link to Uschi’s post to them. My colleagues have graciously allowed me to collect our email conversation into this post, where we further explore and discuss the question.

Me:  Nice blog post showing that 20 years on, things haven’t really changed…

Colleague Zero: I think a lot of them (PIs) have Asperger’s syndrome, and are very high functioning autistics. Seriously. Think about it. 

Colleague 2: A lot of them are just jerks.  They know what they are doing and just don’t care.  PI A?  Jerk.  PI B?  Jerk.  PI C?  Jerk (though he may actually think he is helping mentor students).

Colleague Zero: Oh, I agree that there are many who are just plain jerks. But I have also met quite a few scientists (at all levels, not just PIs) who are very socially awkward and don’t seem to be able to understand when the people reporting to them are sending non-verbal cues, and who seem to be fixated on what appear to be odd behaviors. For example, I can think of someone you all know from my old lab who refers to you all as “lollygaggers” and “my little friends.”

Me: I think it’s a given that the bell curve of scientists is shifted to the side of autism/asperger’s.  I think the interesting question is one of how/whether to change the way the system works.

To put it another way, why do people want to be PIs?  My feeling is that for many people it’s the ability to do the research they’re interested in on a larger scale, independently, and to continue growing as a scientist.  The way the system is set up, that means being a PI.  Is there a way to create a different system that would satisfy the need of scientists to continue to grow and earn independence, while also satisfying society’s needs for scientists to actually extend knowledge in ways that enrich us as a culture/nation, and that does not require having PIs?

Autonomous collectives!

More realistically, with science getting bigger in scale I think there are already pressures to change the training of grad students and postdocs (and PIs) to emphasize more of the softer people skills.  It’ll be kind of the blind trying to teach the blind how to see, but whatever.   It seems worth doing though, because even with people who are close to or on the spectrum, that doesn’t mean you can’t still shift them to the other direction with coaching and mentoring.

Colleague 3: Actually, the solution is quite simple.  All PIs need to have a lab manager or “Handler”.  I propose a system whereby people can get PhDs in Lab Management.  In graduate school, first year science PhD students and first year manager PhD students are paired.  As part of their respective degrees, they have to work together on several projects.  They work together training undergraduates and rotation students, writing grant proposals, meeting with seminar speakers, etc.  They get to know each other very well.  Upon graduation, they, as a pair, are hired into post-docs and eventually they run a lab together. Since the Handler knows the particular foibles of their PI (or Symbiont), they are in a perfect position to run interference for them, smoothing over any potential problems that may arise.

What do you think?

Colleague 2: If the “handlers” get controllers for the PIs’ shock collars, I am in.

Colleague 4: I think that the majority of PIs are not A-holes, but over the years I’ve realized that the entire system of academic research is deeply screwed up and that PIs often become the focus of people’s frustration.  For example, the sheer amount of work and technical complexity needed to publish in decent journals keeps increasing, requiring PIs to pull together teams of people and to collaborate with other labs.  However, first and last authorships continue to be the primary indicator of success.  I also think that the dual role of grad. students/postdocs as trainees focused on learning yet also functioning as labor to execute the projects funded in grants is a real problem.  The role of technicians needs to be defined better and techs should be required to get some education or certification beyond college.  The problem is also caused by the sheer workload and range of responsibilities professors have.  This often makes it impossible for them to get everything done and have any time left to mentor the people that work for them.  And then there’s the issue of how people learn technical skills.  The PIs often don’t have time to teach bench skills or may not even know how to do anything (ie PI D).  Yet the experienced postdocs in the lab have no motivation to help teach new people as it doesn’t get you anything.  I think this all relates to a need to completely redefine the nature of research teams in academics, lending greater status to Ph.D. level scientists that are essential team members but not quite PI’s, redistribution of some academic duties from professors to postdocs, recognizing that teaching grad students and techs how to do lab work is a legitimate and essential form of teaching, and generally figuring out how to have contributions to the success of a team count toward job security and status.  Of course, none of this will happen, so I vote for the shock collar idea!  Fun stuff.

Me: The idea of having paired “scientific” and “handler” tracks is interesting.  It’s related to something I’ve been thinking about in the organization of biopharma labs, which is that ideally we’d decouple “managing” from scientific research responsibilities, and so lower levels scientists and techs wouldn’t report directly to scientific leads but rather would be managed by managers whose primary job would be to make sure those scientists and techs have the career development, growth, and teaching they would like to have and which, as Colleague 4 points out, they often don’t get from a more traditional PI.  The scientific leads would have to rely on two things to attract people to work with them (not for them) on their projects:  interesting science and soft skills. If you’re a jerk, you have no power over the people who could help you accomplish your project, and they can leave at any time.  The manager would be the one serving as both buffer and advocate for the people he or she manages, and his or her performance would be judged on evaluation of how well his people are growing and performing.

The problem is I think there are not enough people in science who actually want to manage and develop their people.  As Colleague 4 says, this is in part just because they have an unrealistic level of tasks to perform and management migrates to the bottom in terms of priority.  But it’s also a personality thing.  I’m also not sure of the logistics of having two people paired for as long as Colleague 3 proposes.  That seems unlikely.  More possible is to have different programs and just to make sure that when scientific PIs are hired, they are required to hire someone who has the “handler” skillset.  Maybe it would be fun to turn the system on its head and only grant tenure to handlers, since they’d be rarer and therefore supposedly in more demand.

Could handlers come from outside science?  I don’t know.  That’s another question…

Colleague 5: I’m finding myself in agreement with pretty much everyone. Grad schools prepare you well for doing research, but do nothing to develop skills in people management, financial management, communication, and a half dozen other things that are essential to be a PI.  The post-grad career track rewards people with intense focus and work ethics, and those aren’t always accompanied by decent people skills, a balanced personality (hello, PI E), or a concern for the advancement of the people who work with/for them. And the whole system stupidly spends a small fortune on people like me, creating highly trained and motivated people with a lot of experience and huge knowledge base – and then drops us like a rock because paying for all that experience is expensive.

In my case, I’m happy it worked out that way, because I really enjoy my job and it’s more suited to my lack of focus than research ever was. But that’s anything but an endorsement of the system.

When I come to power, the first thing I’d do is revamp the education system to develop those skills that are currently ignored. It won’t do anything to solve the problems at the later steps of the game, but it would at least give people a lot of skills that are applicable to alternate careers, which will stand them in good stead for when the system drops them.

Me: Recent NYTimes article about some of the things we discussed in this thread.

Colleague Zero: I’ve been thinking about this thread for a while now. I was meeting with some collaborators last month, most of whom I was meeting for the first time. These were 4 PIs and a post-doc. Two PIs were MDs (one American and one foreign), and both were psychiatrists, and the other two PIs were PhDs (both foreign). The postdoc worked for the MDs, and was also foreign.

There was quite a bit of tension in the room because the foreign MD was pissed at both PhD PIs, and the PhDs were super defensive and secretive about their part of the project. So, 3/4 of the PIs in the room were being a$$holes. I know the foreign MD very well, and he’s usually very nice. The only thing that prevented the meeting from degenerating into a fist-fight was the American MD, who treated the whole meeting like a group-therapy session.

So Colleague 5’s point about needing skills in people management and communication was borne out in exemplary fashion in this meeting. As the new person in this collaboration, I felt like I was watching toddlers fight over a playground toy.  I guess my point here is that there is a professional training mechanism for these people skills, but it is primarily found in the medical track, and there is nothing that says that having these skills will make you a more successful researcher (as opposed to a better person; so why bother trying to acquire them?

It seems like a high level of attrition is built into academic science education in a deceptive manner — graduate students represent a constant stream of young cheap labor with intermediate-level skills; as Colleague 5 suggests, no one wants to pay for all those people if they manage to develop really high-level skills. PIs who tell graduate students that it will be easy for them to get faculty positions are just contributing to the deception.

This contrasts with medical school, where almost all of the attrition occurs prior to acceptance to a program, and medical students don’t really provide much in the way of medical services while in school; there is no shortage of medical jobs waiting of them when they complete their training.

I think that the same thing (intentionally high-levels of attrition creating a large cheap labor base) is happening now with the legal profession. There are a lot more people going to law school now than there were previously. Have any of you lawyer-types read this book?

Me: Following up on this, here’s a Henry Bourne essay that I may or may not have forwarded already–apologies if I have–which talks about the exact issue Colleague Zero brings up, in which students are encouraged to get PhDs when the system as it stands frankly can’t support that many.

For our field of Biomedical research, the NIH budget doubling that happened during the Clinton years was able to mask some of the problems with the system, as enough money was flowing in to keep the system going. However, now the piper is coming to be paid as the NIH budgets are stagnant and yet universities expect the rate of funding, and therefore indirect costs, to continue to rise.

UW here has been building a huge biomedical campus near where I work, most of which is dedicated to research.  It’s great, sure, but I’m also hearing of a lot of my friends and colleagues there being squeezed out of jobs as the granting rate drops into the low single digits.  These pressures, I’m speculating, are why the PIs Colleague Zero mentions are so cagey–no one wants to give away anything that could be useful for a grant.

It’s sad. There’s an organization here called Sage Biosciences that is trying to foster more open science and collaborative efforts both in academia and industry, but I think they’re having a hard road of it because neither side is really incentivized to share and play nicely.  Again, the system is set up to reward people looking out for themselves rather than more collaborative and open people.

Colleague 2: From what I heard, the lawyer bubble is deflating.  There is a frustrated lawyer-wanna-be at the Wall Street Journal who has been trashing going to law school for the past four or so years.  Between that and the lower hiring rates at big law firms, the numbers applying at law schools has been going down.  I don’t know if that has been reflected in the absolute number of law school students, since it has been fairly oversubscribed for years.  I have heard that the top law schools have been stealing candidates from the second tier schools.  The second tier steals from the third tier and so on.  The end result has been fewer high quality students even at the top tier.

On the patent attorney side, I can say at least anecdotally that we have been seeing fewer good candidates with PhDs.  The few that we do interview are the socially awkward misfits that can barely make eye contact.  To find good candidates, we have been focusing on recruiting straight from grad school so we can target the smart ones who can actually communicate.  Btw, I would be happy to visit any of your schools to give a seminar on patent law as an alternative career for scientists.

Colleague 5: I was on a couple of alternative careers panels last week, and afterwards, one of the organizers mentioned to a few of us panelists that a postdoc had told her that the whole thing was a waste of time – after all, the postdoc said, he was destined for a great faculty job, and thinking about alternate careers was a distraction.

Without missing a beat, a journal editor said “well, maybe he is destined for a faculty position – he’s got the a-hole thing down already”.

Colleague 4: Thanks for including me in this little discussion group.  Colleague Zero’s comments really get at the core of the problem.  It’s often frustrating to see the huge elephant in the room that no one acknowledges, especially when dealing with young grad students who are so proud of trivial accomplishments.  I should say that the (medical institution) Ph.D program can correctly brag that its students have a high success rate of getting faculty positions.  However, the program specifically targets students who come from, and intend to return to, small colleges with no NIH funded research.  This leads to the issue of why make students spend five years learning sophisticated lab skills if they are going to make a living teaching basic biology to undergrads.  Answer:  grad students are cheaper than techs.  Ph.D programs have traditionally been based on an economic arrangement in which students function as low paid techs (and as TAs, etc) in exchange for an admission ticket to the faculty pool.  There is a book by Louis Menard called the “Market Place of Ideas” that describes the history of this whole situation beginning in the early 20th century.

I will add a thought about the management issue.  There is a distinction between managing “up” vs “down.”  I think many successful PIs excel at managing up, which involves convincing people to give you a job, a grant, more space, etc.  This type of management is the key to standing out as a young scientist. However, there is no training or evaluation of managing down skills needed to work with students, employees, etc who don’t respond to the same personality traits as other PIs.  I suppose managing collaborations is more “horizontal,” but this is also not a big part of postdoctoral training.

Colleague 5: Here’s something that might be relevant:

Me: That’s a hopeful story. Another element of the issue is self-knowledge. One thing about the scientific mindset is we are trained to evaluate evidence. If one is provided with evidence of one’s actions and behaviors, maybe that would create some incentive to make a change, as related in that article.

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