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How Basic Researchers Can Fall Into Management in Industry

I've spent a lot of time debating whether I want to join the ranks of management in the biotech company where I work.

When people say "management" or "supervisor" I tend to think of vest-wearing Dilbertesque types (with weird hair). Then I shudder.

But recently, I've wanted to make changes in the group where I've had my "home" for the last few years. I was frustrated by the in-house reagent inventory. (Ever had to wait 3 weeks for your reagents to be delivered?) I was upset that we weren't hiring "good" lab techs or biostatisticians who couldn't interpret our basic research data in conjunction with incoming clinical data. And I was really irritated by the fact that I didn't know how to get these issues across to, well, the dreaded management.

To put things into perspective, I consider myself a bench researcher through and through. I love working in the lab. I really love getting into experimental design. And I consider myself lucky to have found a home in industry. Because I've always been results-oriented, working in a corporate culture wasn't as huge a shock as it has been for some of my buddies from grad school or my postdoc.

So it occurred to me that instead of complaining to no one in particular, I should take my "issues" to someone who would listen. I made an appointment with our division head (after my immediate boss suggested that I do so) and headed off with my list.

I probably had a suspicion that the meeting could result in the equivalent of a corporate demerit on my record at the company, but I didn't care. (And I might have been a bit naïve.) I was sufficiently irritated at what I thought was misuse of my group's time. I also have enough of a stock option package that I was also a "shareholder" in addition to a "complaining employee." (OK, so I'm not a Yahoo millionaire. But the options I do have may go a long way some day.)

My division leader, who I'll call Sue, listened attentively. And took my list. And made notes. She kept asking what I thought they should do about it. I told her that I didn't know how management did things, but that she should be worried about hiring, about tracking lab requests for facilities, about reorganizing the way data is shared....

In any case, my 20-minute appointment dragged on long enough that she asked me to send her a detailed e-mail.

I didn't hear back from Sue for 3 weeks. That's it, I thought. My list made the circular file. Or she's distributing my list with her name on it.

But then I received a yellow sheet (not to be confused with a pink slip) that informed me that I was supposed to show up to a class called "Technical Management Skills."

I asked my boss, who shrugged. "What did you say to Sue, exactly?" he asked.

I managed to "run" into Sue in the library a couple days later. She said that she was responsible for my "introduction" to the management series of classes. "We thought it would help you figure out how to implement those changes you suggested."

Who, me, implement? I don't even use the word in my regular vocabulary.

The short end of this story is that I enjoyed the technical management class (although it did have way too many PowerPoint presentations) and took a couple more classes. I still do bench work. But now I run interference for our entire lab group on shared facilities, scheduling, and project management. My boss even hinted that he wouldn't mind if I took over some of his scheduling and management duties on a permanent basis.

So do I want to become a full-fledged technical manager? I'm still not sure.

There are several scientists at the company who have switched completely out of lab research to management. Some of them handle nothing but project scheduling and data preparation for regulatory filings. Others handle scientific hiring. One researcher even took 2 years off to get his MBA degree in a full-time program and came back to help run one of the product development groups.

Now the company is offering to pay for evening classes at the local university in the MBA extension program. And the course curriculum is really intriguing: All the high-tech companies seem to have similar problems.

The management track does seem attractive because it means that I'll have more options for advancement in the company (or elsewhere if I leave). And the pay scale increases more quickly the higher you go on the ladder.

But I am ambivalent about joining the management track because it will mean dropping experimental design from my workload. It also means that I won't have the same camaraderie with people in my group. (What if I become seen as a Dilbertesque figure?)

One thing is sure: I will refuse to wear a vest, regardless of where I end up.

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