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Tooling Up: Big Decision

Tooling Up, tie
Credit: G. Grullón/Science

The skills involved in personnel supervision are rarely taught at the university. Yet many employers seem to believe that your graduate education prepares you to fill a leadership role. It's a quandary.

As a consultant in the hiring process, I've often wondered why some scientists are promoted into management jobs with little thought given to specialized training. After all, management is not an innate ability; much of it involves learned skills. Still, many smaller companies experiencing rapid growth seem to believe in the "sink or swim" management development approach.

Because management responsibility does tend to sneak up on you, I'd recommend that you become savvy enough to know how you'd feel if it landed in your lap. This month's column will start you on that process, and in case you have no desire to add administrative work to your life, you'll also learn how some companies allow you to "opt out" of the management track entirely.

Management Isn't the Right Goal for Everyone

It would be great if you could simply plan on becoming a manager and then implement that plan when you are ready. Unfortunately, this is where the aforementioned "sink or swim" takes over. Here's how one scientist described her experience:

"I couldn't believe how fast my job changed. I was hired in April and by September I had two techs and another MS scientist reporting to me. It was totally unexpected, as I was brought on as a research scientist and not a manager. Frankly, I didn't know that I had it in me. I certainly hadn't picked up any of those skills in my Ph.D. program or postdoc."

While this woman was successful in meeting her increased responsibilities, many others don't make the cut. In some companies, the kiss of death is to have the boss describe you as a "better scientist than a manager." That's because many smaller firms have only one way--management--to move up the ladder. If you are going to advance, you must be able to lead others; the person who fails as a manager is on shaky ground. At the very least, he or she may spend years on a career "plateau."

The problem for many scientists and their employers is that not all people are capable of supervision. Even among those who are capable of it, there are plenty who just aren't interested. Not everyone wants to become a manager.

Is an MBA a Worthy Addition to Your Post-Ph.D. Education?

One of the most popular questions asked by people interested in a career in management is whether an MBA is a good addition to the CV. Most experts agree that while the combination of MS/MBA or Ph.D./MBA is very marketable, some managers may have concerns when these degrees are seen together on a resume that doesn't also document a lot of work experience.

The AAAS Science Careers Forum has had a number of questions and responses from industry "insiders" on the MBA question. Here is a small sample of what is available on the forum.

Online MBA's . . .

"Run away as fast as you can from online MBA programs. In actuality, an online MBA will destroy credibility on your CV."

Top Schools versus Local Programs . . .

"If you decide to go for an MBA, apply to the top schools (Harvard, Wharton, Kellogg, Stanford, Chicago, MIT, Yale, Tuck, etc) and go down the list. Go to the best school that will accept you."

Adding an MBA directly after the MS or Ph.D. . . .

"Get an industry job and attack your work there with gusto. Build up some credibility and work years ? your broad base of experience will make the difference when it comes time to apply to those top schools. Your MBA is so much more meaningful when you've had industry experience as well."

The Dual Ladder

In some companies, a track is available for the person who does not want to move up by taking on the supervision of others. This "dual career ladder" is the method by which scientific employees can nix management responsibility, if that is your preference and if you're strong enough in other areas.

Recently, some smaller companies have established dual career ladders, allowing professional growth without demanding a move into management. Most large R&D-driven companies, including the big pharmaceutical firms, have offered this option for years.

At companies that have a dual ladder, scientific employees are faced with a decision that will dramatically affect their career success and job satisfaction: Should I choose the management track or the non-management track? The intent of two-ladder programs is not to make life more difficult; it's to accommodate a wider range of employee talents and skills. Yet it does mean that industrial scientists often face a critical decision fairly early in their careers.

On the technical track, you can remain a scientific contributor and earn increased respect as you move up in the rank of investigators. You may begin as a Research Scientist and end up as a Principal Scientist, a position earning VP-level pay and prestige. On the other track, you'll move into responsibility for people and projects, perhaps starting as a Group Leader and advancing to an executive level. Dual career ladders are intended to provide employees with equal respect and status for their distinct but equally important contributions.

Would You Be a Good Manager?

I recently spotted a great list of career self-analysis questions from author David Ghitelman, writing in the magazine Meetings and Conventions. I've adapted them for our Next Wave audience below:

  • Do I like to focus on team or individual results? If you are just coming out of your graduate school or postdoc, the answer to this important question may still be a bit fuzzy. The world of academic research revolves around stellar individual results. Contrast this with the importance of team success on the industry side, and you've got a difficult transition, and not only if you're considering a move to management. Team results are the industry focus even when you remain on the technical ladder.

  • Do I communicate effectively? This sounds like a no-brainer. After all, you've managed grant applications, scientific papers, and technical seminars. But a different type of communication is essential for the management track. As a manager, you will frequently need to convince others of the value of a particular plan of action. Some scientists possess all the communication fundamentals but crash and burn when it comes to selling. Managers constantly sell ? whether it is to pitch the board of directors on a particular research direction or to convince the troops of management's sincere interest in their future during difficult financial times.

  • Can I give constructive criticism? Criticism isn't gentle after a scientific seminar; it can be razor sharp. Seeing your work analyzed by others in a rigid system of peer review isn't necessarily the best training for constructive criticism. But, perhaps you had a mentor who helped you along in the very early stages of your education . . . Can you see yourself using this same kind of gentle, nurturing criticism to help your non-scientific employees? When you manage in industry, you are dealing with some people who haven't been through the same scientific ringer. They come from outside that world, and all it takes is the wrong tone of voice or a questioning look and you can lose them. Constructive criticism, in industry, will involve one set of skills for thick-skinned scientists and another set entirely for the non-scientific among your team.

  • Will I be comfortable giving orders, and occasional constructive criticism, to my former peers and friends? It puts a special strain on friendships when one person becomes a supervisor. The entire relationship shifts. In all likelihood, your friends and colleagues will never view you the same way again. Can you deal with that?

  • Watch how people with "manager" titles spend their day, and then ask yourself, would I want to be in his or her shoes? It sounds great to be in management...that is, until you start watching the daily activities of someone who is knee-deep in reports, budgets, and annual reviews. Yes, a lot of administrative tasks occupy the days of managers, even the ones who manage science.

  • Will this bring more stress into my life, and is that okay with me? As a technical professional, you are already aware of the impact of stress. When your science isn't going the way you expected, that's stress. When you end up as third author on the paper you wrote, that's stress. However, there is a great deal of difference between the anxiety that results from not reaching your personal goals and the stress that comes down from top management when your project is running behind and hurting corporate profits.

The Decision You Make

Management may start as just another skill to be acquired, but it often ends up as an entirely different career from that of the solo scientist. It's wise to do some careful thinking now to help you frame that important decision when it comes.

When I see someone stumble at that juncture, it is usually a highly competent technical person who for some reason is convinced that going to management is his or her only choice to move up in the organization. Gifted scientists may find their skills wasted as administrative tasks they aren't good at take up all their time. In some companies it is the only choice, but in many others, it isn't. If supervision isn't of interest, choose an employer with a dual career ladder.

On the other hand, if you're ready to be thrown into management on a moment's notice, start thinking about the subjects in this month's column and you'll have plenty of chances along the way. There's no stopping today's crop of young biotech companies. And as their product portfolios expand, so does their need for management talent.