The successful professor of science

Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, program managers, at a program meeting.

Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, program managers at UCSB, at a program meeting.

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.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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6 Responses to The successful professor of science

  1. Nancy Dudek says:

    I am a research project manager! I love it. I believe that project management is part of the experiment. Project management is all about defining milestones along your journey of discovery and directing resources for each milestone. Resources could be units of enzyme or man hours or money for shipping field samples back to the lab. You should not move onto the next milestone until you have completed the current milestone to the pre-agreed QUALITY. Your experiments should be SMART: Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely!

    • Hi Nancy,
      These are very interesting ideas. I wish our science worked this clearly. We never know what is going to accordion out to be a really cool thing, taking tons of resources, what is going to be easy or hard. Frankly, for what my group does, I find it hard to plan to these details, or even how to set milestones. But I do think it is important to think about. I think it is part of my job to know exactly what milestone each person is aiming towards and also to know what backup projects they are working on if the milestone turns out to be unattainable. It is important to finish to publication each project before dropping it, unless the drop is an active decision.

  2. Jeremy Fox says:

    Joan, do you think “program manager” is something we can fully train students and postdocs for? Or is it analogous to parenting, at least to an extent? When my wife and I were thinking of starting a family, a friend of mine who had already had children said to me that “It’s not that you feel you’re ready to be a parent, and then you become a parent. You become a parent, and then you become ready, because you have to be.” Of course, there’s a continuum of readiness-in-advance here. There certainly are ways in which one could be more or less ready in advance to be a parent (e.g., if the baby’s born and you haven’t yet purchased any baby clothes or diapers or etc., you’re not ready!) And similarly, I’m sure it’s possible to train our students and postdocs to be program managers to some extent. But to how much of an extent, do you think?

    • I suppose you can never fully train someone on all the tricks of the job. As a young parent, I sure did spend a lot of time talking to more experienced parents, though. The tiniest ones are easy. Cuddle, insert breast in mouth, make funny faces, change diaper, repeat. Different people have different lab management styles. But as a graduate student, not only did I not know how to do it, I also did not even know it was a topic. I think scientists are driven by the questions, so reminding them that there are people looking for certain kinds of guidance is a good idea. Then they should develop their own style, something that may not come until they take on their first faculty position.

  3. Hi Joan. What about the ‘salesperson’ angle? I also feel we have to travel the world and make people aware of our science, and our results. Fun, but another important part of the job. As is editor, author, manager, fund raiser… Nobody told me this when I entered academia.

    • Yes, selling our work is important, not only in talks and the like, but also simply in the framing of the argument. Why, exactly is what you have done important? Relate it to what has gone before, to things that are in neighboring fields. You are amazing at that, but it isn’t mostly salesmanship, it is the incredible work. Sometimes we wonder why we work so many hours. I think part of it is that when we spend a lot of time on these “upper management” jobs we still feel we have to put in the time on what really counts, or feels like it counts, teaching, writing, researching.

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