17 August 2012

Does a Ph.D. train you to head a lab?

I was stopped by this quote in Soapbox Science:

I feel people should be aware that, while a PhD program almost perfectly serves the purpose of training you to become a primary investigator, not everybody will be able to become one in the current job market (pretty obvious, right!).

I am not sure how well Ph.D. programs train people to be head scientists running labs.

I felt a doctorate trained me well to be a post-doc. But when I started my current gig, I had a lot of moments where I fell I hadn’t been warned what I was in for.

The first thing that happened was I botched my negotiation. Being god’s fool, I somehow managed to avoid disaster, but I could have been very badly burned if there hadn’t been some honourable people around.

I’d been a teaching assistant as a graduate student, so I wasn’t completely lost there. But there is a big difference between being a teaching assistant and running your own class from stem to stern.

But running my own lab has been... a mixed bag. It took longer for me to get my footing than I expected, and to have projects in the wings ready for students to pick them up. Judging by my success rate, I still have a lot to learn about “grantsmanship.” And I still don’t feel my management / supervisory style is all that it could be.

The big one, though, is bookkeeping and budgeting. I didn’t have to worry about tracking money in any significant way as a grad student or post-doc. Spending money at an institution is not like spending your own money. You have layers of people and paperwork that stand between you and purchases. You have obscure “enterprise finance” systems that seem designed to drive a person to substance abuse. I’ve learned that I despise trying to keep track of grant money.

I’m lucky, because of the kind of institution I’m in and the kind of lab I run, that I don’t do as much of this as if I was at a big research institution. To listen to people in those situations, grant writing and grant management is all they do. If I had landed that kind of job, I would have been woefully unprepared.

Additional, 21 August 2011: This article in Science Careers about early career NIH awards echoes the sentiments above:

But she doesn’t usually need advice for the science aspects, Olsen says; it’s laboratory management and interpersonal relationships. “I definitely feel overwhelmed at some junctures, trying to figure out the bureaucracy and managing other people in the lab, that kind of thing.”


Dr24hours said...

My PhD did not prepare me at all to be a PI. I'm making it up as I go.

27 and a PhD said...

Same here. I only wrote tiny parts of grants (though I did collect preliminary data for a few), but in terms of supervision, navigating admin-type BS and negotiation? I got nada. I mean, if I'd ask my PhD mentor, and then my PD mentor they would have gladly shared, but it wasn't like they sat down with me and said, "this is how you navigate the tricky waters of negotiating an offer, or writing a grant, of submitting a paper, or X, Y, Z, you name it." They took care of all that. I was there as a research assistant, so my job was mainly focused on collecting data, processing such data, disseminate results amongst my (and their) peers. I guess they all though that I'd magically pick up these skills as I went along. I never did, and only have learned to navigate some of the admin BS at my current job as a staff scientist, where I get to make (of help make) decisions as to how and where/when to spend money, what we can afford, etc.

Neuroskeptic said...

I'd say being a PI involves three things:

1 knowing the science
2 knowing how research administration/publishing works ("paperwork")
3 people management/leadership

A PhD teaches you 1) pretty well and 2) partially but it really leaves out 3). Unless you were lucky enough to have an RA/undergrad help you on your PhD, but at lot of people don't.

Eric Charles said...

Great topic!

I have given workshops at Penn State about "getting along with your adviser/committee", and one point I try to make is that there is no obviously right type of relationship. I have seen students struggle desperately with a lack of guidance, but when they make it through they are ready to be PI's. Others have it easy, but get a Ph.D. without the skills to do things on their own.

In my current job, I have seen several people get professorships straight out of high-powered, highly-structured labs and then really struggle with the challenges of having to forge their own research identity, nevertheless navigate the institutional BS.

It would be great to see this idea developed further.