In the business world, technician, project manager and program manager are different jobs, but in academia, the successful career has elements of all three, particularly for scientists and engineers. What exactly are these jobs?
The woman I sat next to on the short flight to Chicago tried to explain it to me. She directed huge activities that involved installing large new software capabilities for companies that bought her telecom company’s product. She was a program manager. That meant she knew nothing of the technical side, but she had a clear idea of the end product, how to oversee the project managers who directed the technicians as to exactly what they had to do, and above all, how to understand whether the client felt their needs were being met. She did this for six months at a location, then moved on to a new installation elsewhere. Clearly she was excellent at what she did, so valued that she did not stay for the more routine management.
I could immediately see that my job is also like that of a program manager, as is that of my partner, David Queller. We direct the teams that tackle the thorny questions. I suppose we have project managers at all levels in the group, with grad student Tracy leading the study of Dictyostelium sex, post doc Debbie leading the study of Dicty-bacteria mutualism and farming, grad student Katie leading the genomics projects and so forth. But I am also a project manager, particularly for new pieces to our endeavor. These are the bits that I dig into more than others, at least at a given time. Although I may not do much of the side that would be described as technician, I need to know much about it. I need to understand the statistics. And who would delegate the joy of field work?
I asked the woman on the plane how she became a program manager. Her answer was vague. She seemed to grow into the position, I guess. We scientists should pay attention to these three levels and see to it that all are covered.
Unfortunately, in graduate school, we are generally exposed to at most the first two. We may start out doing technical experimental or field work. If it is hard enough, as it often is in molecular biology, we may move little past that. One specific thing could be that hard and that important when we succeed. But the minute we get others to direct, we need to take on the attributes of a project manager. How do the goals get accomplished? How do we best make a student working for us feel valued? How do we help them feel inspired? How do we guide them through difficult times? Learning to be a manager is why every grad student should work with undergrads.
The program manager has to see the big picture. What are the important questions? What are the approaches that work best? Is there something new out there that we should start using? What do we need to be doing now to move our group forward? You just can’t do everything at once. A technician would be less effective if she were continually looking for different ways of doing things rather than concentrating on the task at hand, for example.
The problem for new professors is that the essential tasks of the program manager are nearly absent from our training. This crucial side of our jobs might even feel like not real work, for it is not doing research, or writing papers. It is careful, thoughtful, broad oversight. It comes from talking to people, from reading the ads in BioTechnology, from reading science posts in Facebook. It is worth thinking about how you will add this all-important part of your job as you become a professor. You neglect it to your academic peril.