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How to manage your lab (not)

A PDR nightmare: Max Perutz

A PDR nightmare: Max Perutz

The Personal Development Record, or PDR, is a document guaranteed to induce extreme scepticism in anyone doing bench science. Whilst enumeration of one’s expected achievements over the next year is realistic in some jobs, it is distinctly daft when it comes to doing experiments. I have a vision of Max Perutz filling out a PDR every year for a quarter of a century saying “ I intend to determine the structure of haemoglobin” – no doubt he would have been a source of grave concern to any self-respecting Human Resources department. Given their unsuitability as a measure of success, it’s a mystery that these blasted documents have wormed their way into almost all academic departments, there to be laboured over by the conscientious or treated with amusement or contempt by the rest. And in my experience, nobody ever has the heart to award anything less than a “good” rating unless you’ve been very bad indeed, further reinforcing their pointlessness.

PDRs have been much on my mind this week as I’ve had to complete my first one for my science communications day job, where, to be fair, it’s more than possible to set measurable objectives and stick to them. And mulling over my former antipathy to PDRs has pointed up one of the biggest differences I’ve observed since I abandoned the lab: the management and motivation of scientists in academia is somewhat idiosyncratic compared to that of the world outside.

Consider the stereotypical career trajectory of the young, talented scientist. Fired by a passion for your subject, you spend long hours swotting at school and university, and then slave away for years as a PhD student, before undergoing the final rite of burning candles at multiple ends to get a thesis written. Then, a brief interlude of postdoctoral happiness ensues; the PhD is done, there’s a little more money feeding your starving bank account, and if you’re savvy, you’ve settled on a project and lab by informed research, rather than the haphazard process that characterises many (most?) PhD choices. The job market beckons, and after your long apprenticeship, if you’re good enough and lucky enough, you find yourself in an empty lab with your name on the door, surrounded by boxes of equipment.  And abracadabra! You have suddenly been transformed into a Manager, with little or no idea how to proceed.

Some singularly well-adjusted people take to management likes the proverbial ducks to water, effortlessly motivating their colleagues to Stakhanovite feats of scientific drudgery (although I see with regret that Stakhanov is now thought to have faked his data). However, the rest of us, including quite a few individuals residing many standard deviations off the normality mean (a traditional haunt of the scientist), have to make it up as we go along, with the inevitable disasters along the way. My erstwhile lab may disagree, but my personal management style veered from encouragement by example (I figured that if I looked like I was enjoying myself and was in the lab a lot, some of that might rub off) right through to what one of my lab (to my enduring shame) categorised as aggressive bullying (I really wanted them to do the control, but I could have put it much better). In the end, all my useful management strategies were learnt as a new mother: cajoling a toddler into eating his broccoli ALL UP turns out to be great training for dealing with many situations.

Not renowned for advanced management skills

Not renowned for advanced management skills

Although there are some out-and-out villains, renowned for sarcasm, bullying, contempt and worse, much bad behaviour is borne of extreme frustration in the face of apathy or stubbornness on the part of a lab member. If you know that you could get an experiment done in a week, and moreover do it better, the temptation to harangue your apparently lethargic postdoc in an attempt to get them to understand how important something is is enormous. I suppose the best way to avoid such situations is to hire the right people to begin with, but again, lack of experience in interview techniques coupled with an urgent need to have another pair of hands is enough to weld a pair of rose-coloured spectacles onto anyone’s nose. To be fair, these days there is much more management training available than when I started out, and I hope that the numerous courses available to today’s rookie lab heads are doing some good. And I should point out to anyone who ever worked for me that by sheer good fortune, you were a great bunch of people, none of whom I ever regretted hiring.

Even with the right people in place, and a good management style, labs are somewhat lacking in the traditional incentives available to the eager beaver in other professions. Businesswomen of my acquaintance are truly astonished that we cannot generally reward success with bonuses or promotion, and team building exercises such as celebratory dinners, awaydays and retreats are generally paid for out of the PI’s pocket. Academics are paid in the currency of fame, in the shape of recognition by their peers, not fortune (with a few wealthy exceptions of whom I am wholly jealous). Their job satisfaction lies in doing experiments to the best of their ability, in the hope that one day they may take a step forward that adds something unique to human knowledge, or even better, has substantial medical benefits. And finally, many of them would be doing their job anyway, for love; this science business is as vocational as nursing or teaching or the priesthood, and long may it stay that way. But come on folks, let’s scrap the PDRs, or at least get someone with a vaguely scientific understanding to recast them into something slightly more realistic for this peculiar,wonderful profession.

OK, I admit I don't have a photo of my son eating broccoli...

OK, I admit I don’t have a photo of my son eating broccoli…


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