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Special Feature: Laboratory Management

It's one of the weirdest aspects of scientific training: You spend years learning how to do the science, hands-on. The natural progression, if you're successful, is to become head of your own lab and stop spending time at the bench. There just isn't time or bench space for it anymore: All your time is spent (between teaching gigs and committee meetings) obtaining and managing money and hiring and managing people. You're no longer a scientist; you're a manager of scientists and your own scientific enterprise.

And what training did you get for that? Here’s a little poll for principal investigators (PIs) and aspiring PIs. Still a graduate student or a postdoc? You can take the poll as well.

[Editor's note: The poll is now closed. We thank those people who took part in it.]

You'll have to wait awhile before I may post the results on the Science Careers Blog, so here's a proxy. According to one poll (cited in one of this week's articles), only 4% of all scientists have received formal management training and fewer than half have received any management training at all. It's regrettable, sure--but how do people cope? And what are the real consequences?

As far as I know, no one has ever tried to determine how much this lack of management training costs the research enterprise each year in terms of dollars or lost scientific progress. But if my experience (direct and indirect) is typical, the costs are high--and when it comes to people management, some of those costs can be measured in human terms.

How many trainees and practicing scientists are beaten down and demoralized by inept managers? How many promising researchers choose careers in sectors in which professional management yields a more satisfying work experience--and a better life? "There are some horrible pathologies in some labs in the relationships," says Edward O'Neil, director of the Center for the Health Professions at the University of California, San Francisco, in Karyn Hede's Managing Scientists, this week's first feature story. Grad students and postdocs stay "because they are inspired by the science, but they leave some of these labs really wounded people. ... Then they will use that as a model" for how to lead their own labs, O'Neill continues.

On the money-management side, the problem is different, but it's hardly less serious. Managing a laboratory's fiscal accounts isn't like balancing a checkbook. It has more in common with managing a business--and that's an idea that many scientists never consider. Like any business, a laboratory has to meet payroll and make ends meet. It needs a steady, diversified revenue base, and its chief decision-maker has to assess when to play it safe and when to take chances, usually with little space for errors. In Toward a Philosophy of Resource Management, Siri Carpenter lays the foundations of an integrated, comprehensive approach to money management in the lab.

At Science Careers, we have been thinking about these issues for years. So don't forget to check out our back catalog of excellent management resources, including:

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.

Images. Top: Getty Images. Middle: Jupiter Images.