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Tooling Up: Are You Management Material?

“A good manager is the motivating force that moves a monster project along by being sure all of its disparate wings, tentacles, tongues, and eyestalks are wiggling harmoniously.”—Monica Horvath, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

“I’m totally convinced that management is the way to go. I’m going to add an MBA to my Ph.D. before I leave the university, and enter industry in a management capacity,” said the molecular biologist in our brief discussion about his career goals.

I flinched. That’s the kind of decision that gets some people into trouble later on. Although the MBA issue could go either way (see my closing comments), John’s statement about entering industry as a manager really tickled the hair on the back of my neck. From personal experience, I know that hiring managers and H/R people hate to hear that in an interview.

“John, what do you know about management jobs in industry, and why do you think you’d like to focus on that career track?” I asked him. “You’ve had an excellent technical background up to this point, and I know you could do well in industry. Perhaps it might be better to go forward with your current strength and then work toward management once you are in the club.”

As this 15-minute “CV review” session at the AAAS meeting drew to a close, it was apparent to me that John knew very little about what managers really do in industry, aside from walking from office to office with coffee in hand. We laughed together at stereotypes like Dilbert’s boss and the evil Lundberg in the classic movie “Office Space.”

Sure, managers in industry drink lots of coffee and spend a lot of time wandering around talking to people and sitting in meetings. That’s because management is a job of getting things accomplished through others. Those weighty responsibilities don’t land on a person’s shoulders until after they’ve paid their dues.

Like it or not, years of graduate training or business school isn’t a substitute for the experience of working your way up the ladder.

Common misperceptions about managing

Knowing that many companies would ask John a few questions about his goals and then politely end the interview process, I helped him with several other misunderstandings he had about managing so that he could become a better interviewer. His comments really rang a bell for me, as so many other graduate students and postdocs have brought these same items up for discussion on the AAAS Career Discussion Forum.

- “The only way to move up in a company is to be a manager.” Although this may have been the case years ago, most firms are now making the purely technical track an appealing career choice as well with the dual-career ladder, developed because scientists often feel “pushed” into management. A dual ladder means that you can move up the scientific ranks in much the same way as the management ladder, earning salary increases and promotions along the way.

- “I can maintain my job doing bench science while also handling management responsibilities.” I often ask job candidates what mix of management and science they would prefer. Many scientists tell me that they would like to maintain a 50/50 mix of science and supervision. They believe you can maintain a personal involvement in bench science while at the same time effectively managing a group. But this is rarely the case! Once you are supervising 4 or 5 people, you have essentially moved to full-time management.

- “If I don’t express my desire to manage, I’ll never have a shot at it.” Although there is nothing wrong with telling your prospective boss that you have an interest in supervision, careers move rapidly on their own at smaller employers. The scientist-to-manager transition can come on you quite suddenly; one day you are solving challenging technical problems for your employer and the next you are knee-deep in paperwork and personnel matters!

- “Management is just another skill that I can pick up and add to my CV.” To people who have had years of graduate education and possibly a postdoc or two, new jobs often seem to come with a handful of required steps, like learning to use a new laboratory instrument. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works with management. This is an entirely different career than science, and not simply another set of skills to add to one’s CV.

The four skill areas for a new manager

Jim Lewis, a Virginia consultant, regularly teaches the course “The Engineer as Manager” at Arizona State University and other locations. He breaks down the job of a technical manager into four skill categories: technical, organizational, conceptual, and human relations. Here are some of the things that I’ve learned from Jim over the years about these four talents of a manager:


No one wants to lose touch with science completely, even those like John with a strong desire to get away from the bench. Entry-level managers still need their technical skills because the job occasionally requires hands-on expertise. Even when a manager works 100% through others and is far removed from the bench, the technical knowledge base remains essential. Directing scientists, which often includes helping others interpret the results of their work, would be impossible without current technical skills.


Strong planning and organizational ability is a must-have. Many scientists and engineers assume they can manage projects because they have always been able to effectively plan and organize their own responsibilities and those of one or two associates. Organizing and planning other people’s work is much different than organizing and planning your own work. When you work through others, the critical element is how all their work fits together. Organizing this requires something different than the experience you’ve had in academia.


In order to properly utilize staff and other resources like suppliers, internal groups, etc., a manager must have the ability to clearly visualize the desired goal and then communicate this to others. Good managers know that information sharing is critical. Some people don't spend enough time with their people describing the expected results, discussing how the group’s efforts will pay off down the road for the larger organization, which causes the work to suffer.

Human Relations

Too often, the technical wizard is promoted to supervisory responsibility where a shortfall in “people skills” and a lack of management training puts the new supervisor in jeopardy--and risks the employee for the firm. No one likes the loss of face involved in a move back to the bench. There is no quicker way to assure a life of exclusively bench science than to prove incompetent in working with other people. Too many new managers believe that it is the other person who needs to get along with them; in fact, the manager is responsible for developing a productive relationship with each person on their team.

What is “management material”?

Some young companies are growing so fast that if you are breathing and you have a Ph.D. in protein chemistry you are a likely candidate for a job in management. But other firms are a bit more circumspect in choosing managers. Generally, the company makes this decision after reviewing your ability to get along with others. Interpersonal skills are critical because in your first management position you must be able to influence people you do not directly manage.

Project management at the managerial level requires bringing together a wide range of timelines, commitments, and resources--including human resources that you may not have true authority over. “Abilities like these can be seen either by previous experience or by external activities that show this sort of leadership,” says Andrew Kolbert, a hiring manager and frequent adviser on the AAAS Science Careers Forum. “If someone has leadership responsibility in volunteer groups, for example, they may be able to influence without authority. These sort of activities are often the only thing which differentiates entry-level college grads from one another.”

Some doors open . . . and others close

Like my acquaintance John, many new graduates and postdocs believe that they can hit the management track right out of the gate by doing an MBA. Although it is true that some people use an early MBA as a launching pad, many others claim that the degree, without work experience behind it, only makes the job search more difficult.

I’d describe this as a matter of doors opening and doors closing. If you have a particular job in mind and a strong desire to reach it, talk to people in such roles and ask them if an MBA might help you open those doors. Although the door to a career at a consulting firm may open wider with your MBA, many others will close.

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