Wanted: Technical Managers

Companies often promote scientists with very strong technical skills into managerial positions. Frequently, these individuals struggle with their new roles. But this is not just an industry issue--academic PIs must often toil to fulfill their new identities as advisers to graduate students and postdoctoral scientists.

In industry, promotion to managerial posts can occur for several reasons. Sometimes, it is the only step to progress in one's career. In other instances, upper management decides that if you are strong technically, then you are bound to be an effective manager. To my knowledge, such a correlation has never been shown, although it is nonetheless a commonly cited reason for making managerial appointments.

Regardless of the reason, there is a risk to you--the technically strong scientist--if you are not adequately prepared for a management position. In fact, without management skills, the "promotion" could derail your career. This article will discuss some of the ways you can enhance your qualifications and preparedness to be a technical manager. Gaining supervisory experience and developing your managerial skills and knowledge are two good steps to begin your preparation.

Experience Paves the Way

Before you graduate, look for the opportunity to manage people. One of the most common chances for this is to supervise other laboratory personnel. If this avenue is not available to you, seek out other supervisory roles. It would be best if you could find a way to manage technical personnel, but you can also gain experience by being a leader in an extracurricular club at the university or by coordinating a local community effort.

Gaining supervisory experience helps you determine whether you want to pursue this career path in the future or if you would prefer to stick to bench research. It will also help you identify areas where you might need to improve your management skills. One more thing: Seek out feedback from the person managing you on what aspects you can improve upon in your management activities.

Learning Managerial Skills

Universities are beginning to recognize that they need to do a better job of preparing doctoral and master's of science candidates to enter the business world. Several schools are now giving students the option to take business, finance, management, and human resources courses. This is a great start. Four years ago, I sat on a major university's science-school curriculum review committee. Although other members of the review committee agreed that many of these individuals would be managing laboratory personnel and research departments in the future, I was surprised that they did not offer or require any business classes for their doctoral students. This university has since modified its curriculum and now offers courses that will help prepare science students to manage scientists and others in academic and industrial settings.

You have a few options when considering coursework. As mentioned above, many universities now offer management courses to graduate students. The University of Tennessee, for instance, has a 1-week offering called The Engineer/Scientist as a Manager. This course teaches scientists and engineers the skills they need to manage people in an industrial technical setting. Also, you can look outside of academia for classes. The American Management Association offers a seminar called Managing Scientists in Industry. The association describes the course as "successfully moving from the bench to management and sustained innovation along the way." It goes on to say that this interactive seminar helps you develop the skills you need to manage effectively in a research and development setting. And the seminar will teach you how to lead creative teams and enhance their contribution to the organization's bottom line. It is these types of courses and seminars that scientists considering a career in management should take. And it would be best to take them sooner rather than later ? in fact, it is often too late to take them after you are in a management position and find yourself struggling to acquire the necessary skills.

But seminars and courses--which don't come cheap--are not the only self-development approaches. You can also find a variety of books and articles (Related Links below) about the skills needed to manage other scientists. One such book is Managing Scientists: Leadership Strategies in Research and Development, by Alice Sapienza. This book offers strategies for fostering communication and collaboration among scientists. It shows how to build cohesive, productive, and focused teams to succeed in the competitive research and development marketplace. Sapienza says that the book addresses the "human" side of scientists and science. It will help you develop some of the skills you need to be a scientific manager.

Future Demand for Technical Managers

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the U.S. Department of Labor, the job outlook for managers managing scientists will increase more slowly than average. The bright side, however, according to this publication, is that additional jobs will result from the need to replace managers who retire or move into other occupations. As the baby boomers age, a fairly large number of scientific managers are expected to retire later in this decade. This could lead to a higher-than-anticipated demand for technical managers.

This handbook points out that employers prefer managers with strong communication and administrative skills. I believe that technical managers in the future will need to be able to harness the creativity of a group of scientists and to show a good return on the company's investment. Gaining the skills to do this early in your career is going to give you the Insider's Edge.

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