Tuesday, March 24, 2020

“Keep Your Job, Ken!” Part 3: Management

by Professor Kenneth Hanson, Florida State University

Continuing my “Keep Your Job, Ken!” series, this post will discuss some of the management portions of an assistant professorship. During our stint as graduate students and postdocs most of our time is spent as scientists and researchers but little to nothing is dedicated to managerial training. This is unfortunate because it is arguably the most important and most difficult part of being a professor. We can all do the science but it’s those that can manage time and people that become the most successful.

1) Do your homework. One thing that really opened my eyes was the realization that we regularly demand rigorous research and evidence to support some of the most trivial chemical claims. But when it comes to human interactions, we make major decisions largely based on instinct and anecdote. There is a large body of behavioral psychology research that specifically studies best and worst practices in management. Therefore, my first piece of advice is to do your homework. Read a few books on management. Many of the books I read had valuable insights and suggestions, but the one I found most useful was First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman. The book takes an in-depth look at Gallup polling data for 400 companies, >1,000,000 employees, and 80,000 managers and tries to pinpoint the best management practices.  Interestingly, the key to having the happiest, most productive, and most dedicated personnel has very little to do with salary, work hours, vacation days, or the promise of fame and fortune. Instead, an employee’s happiness is almost entirely dependent on how they are treated by their managers. In fact, they reduce this complex management problem to 12 key questions:

1)      Do I know what is expected of me at work?
2)      Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
3)      At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
4)      In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
5)      Does my supervisor or someone at work seem to care about me as a person?
6)      Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
7)      At work, do my opinions seem to count?
8)      Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
9)      Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
10)   Do I have a best friend at work?
11)   In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
12)   This last year, have I had the opportunity at work to learn and grow?

Managers who create an environment where the personnel, staff, and employees answer yes to most of the questions above, most importantly the first five, consistently and overwhelmingly have the most productive teams, lowest turnover, and least mistakes. While we are not running a business, at least not literally, these questions equally apply to a graduate student’s experience in your research group. This list is regularly on my mind when I am meeting and planning with students. In fact, when they first join my group I go over this list with each of them and emphasize the importance of communicating what is working and what isn’t. If at any point they answer ‘no’ to any of these questions, then we need to identify better strategies moving forward.

2) Treat your students as individuals. Good mentoring is not a one size fits all equation. Your students are individuals and need to be treated as such. The first step is to find out what makes them tic. What are their strengths and weaknesses? What motivates them? What are they passionate about? What are their long-term goals? This does not mean you have to be close friends with your students, but it does mean you have to pay attention during your interactions and regularly ask them questions. Learning about your students is key to fostering a positive response to questions 3, 5, 6, 7, 11, and 12 from section one.

3) Only pick the best students. Just kidding, I don’t have any profound wisdom on picking good students. In fact, I became very jaded during my time on the admission committee because neither
GPA, GRE scores, nor glowing letters of recommendation were good predictors of success in graduate school. That is not to say that these metrics are meaningless. Collectively they do give you some insights into students especially if you know the letter writer personally but there is no silver bullet. Despite all of this, thankfully, I have been lucky in that I can honestly say that I have not had a bad graduate student. For the most part I look for enthusiasm, perseverance, examples of overcoming obstacles, and the amount of time spent in lab. It is also likely that flat out telling new students that my group works very hard, but publishes a lot because of it, selects for a particular type of student. It hasn’t scared them all away yet so I am probably going to stick with this strategy.

You will also pick undergraduate research students. Just as with graduate students, there are no obvious tell-tale signs that someone will be good in lab. I have had 4.0’s with great letters that lacked technical abilities and/or were lazy in lab. On the other hand, I have had sub 3.0’s who are driven, creative, and ended up on several papers. And vice versa. Neither I or—as far as I know—anyone else has figured out the right interview questions or CV indicators to suss out research potential.  With that said, I strongly caution against taking pre-professional students, especially if you don’t do bio-related research. While not always true, they are often looking to expand their portfolio.  Resources are limited and I want research in my group to be a steppingstone and not just a resume filler. I would hate for a research tourist to take the spot of a serious research student. I also look for a long term, usually 2-year commitment to research. It gives the student enough time to learn the ropes and take on a project of their own. It also means that I can write them a meaningful letter of recommendation.

4) Don’t put off removing a weak student from your group. I have, thankfully, never had to kick a graduate student out of my group.  However, over the past 6 years I have watched—either as a committee member or as a friend/colleague—other professors wrestle, for years, with the decision to kick out a student. Sometimes they keep waiting for that one obvious thing that will push them to “fire” a weak research student. While removal worthy events occur (i.e. harassment, major negligence, not showing up to work, etc.) they are rarely the reason someone gets booted from a group. Instead, they are scientifically weak, lazy, unmotivated, and/or uninterested but are just okay enough in lab to not get kicked out. That is until the PI can’t take it anymore or they graduate. They are the C- students of research. Often, the PI holds on to the student while hoping they will get better, trying different things to motivate them, or offering different projects to get them invested. The reality is that while anecdotes about successful interventions do exist, they are rare. We keep holding and hoping but in the end are stuck with a 4th year graduate student that does not merit a Ph.D. But sunk-cost fallacy or time-spent pity convinces us to give them a Ph.D. anyway. That Ph.D. is neither good for your program’s reputation, nor for the student who is simply not competitive with their peers and would be better suited as a B.S./M.S. level technician. There is something to be said about having warm bodies in lab to do the work but at some point, the drain in time and effort as well as the damage to lab culture is a far higher cost than losing a student. While large and established groups can afford that cost, assistant professors cannot. So my advice to new professors is, if you are struggling with a weak student, invest 6 months of interventions (e.g. goals, timelines, assignments, etc.) and if they don’t dramatically improve, ask them to pursue other opportunities. It is a hard conversation to have but it is better to do it early rather than waiting until it is “too late.” And, as others have recounted to me, it is painful while it is happening but almost immediately after a tremendous weight is lifted and ultimately it is better for everyone.

5) Destructive students are just as, if not more, damaging to your research group as weak students. In addition to the weak students described in point four, there are “good” graduate students who are arrogant, cocky, opinionated, aggressive, authoritative, and, for lack of a better word, assholes. Many of the people reading this already have the name of a current or former co-worker in mind. Many professors are willing to put up with these “big” personalities because they can also be intelligent and the most productive members of the group. However, I strongly encourage any professor, not just new ones, to decline taking these students and/or remove existing ones from your group. Superficially it may seem like it is worth putting up with them for their productivity, but that too comes at a cost. One management book that really reshaped my view on this subject was The No Asshole Rule by Robert I. Sutton. The book recounts a large body of evidence that shows, in terms of net gain, the assholes in the workplace are a bad return on investment. They are damaging to the workplace culture and a negative influence on those around them. When present, assholes decrease workplace satisfaction, lower overall productivity, increase employee turnover, increase the number of sick days, and create unnecessary drama, among other damages. Any productivity benefits simply do not make up for an asshole’s detriments. Sutton shares the following evidence supported example: Imagine a top salesperson at a car dealership. This person may be leading in sales numbers, but it is due to them poaching sales, demotivating peers, and a general desire to avoid the workplace by many fellow employees. The direct calculation tells you that, if you fire the asshole, you will lose their x sales per month. However, when you account for a lack of poaching and general improvement in moral, the total sales actually increases once the asshole is removed from the equation. The same is likely true, if not truer, for a relatively small research group working long hours together. Not only that, an asshole can damage your group brand and hinder recruiting or, even worse, propagate a cycle of attracting more assholes. Long story short, adhere to the no assholes rule.

There are also additional toxic personalities that are worth watching out for. The people at jobmonkey.com have been kind enough to partition these problematic team members into eight categories. To quote their list:

The Slacker – This employee never pulls their own weight and never gets any work done.
The Bully – No one likes a bully who picks on other team members.
The Gossip – It’s easy to start rumors, but hard to stop them.
The “That’s Not My Job” – An employee who isn’t adaptable or a team player will cause problems.
The Mess – This employee is disorganized, constantly late, and inattentive to detail – and it directly affects his or her work.
The Emotional Train Wreck – When an employee continually shares their emotional baggage it can be draining on the rest of the team.
The Know It All – When an employee always believes they are right, you’ll never get anything done.
The Yeller – People who yell, typically never listen, and make others feel bad in the process.

While many of us exhibit some of these traits, if it becomes a group members defining characteristic and/or starts damaging group culture, then it may be time to consider removing the toxic agent.

6) In a continuation of the previous point, work to establish a positive and productive lab culture. Lab culture is perhaps one of the most underappreciated but critical aspects of any research group. Anyone that has worked in more than one lab knows how different the ambiance of each group can be. Work hours, student-student interactions, work ethic, scientific rigor, expectations, timeliness, etc. all create a collective feel of the group and that influences productivity. Many of these variables are difficult to control and can’t be mandated. There are, however, many things a PI can do to move a group in the right direction.
·  Be on time to every group meeting, 1 on 1 appointment, qualifying exam, etc. It shows that is punctuality is important to you and that you respect and value their time.
·  Check your ego at the door. Being willing to admit your wrong or don’t know something is not a sign of weakness. Instead, it is the foundation of strong/reliable person and is key to character development. A confident but fake façade can save you some momentary “humiliation” but long term it only works to undermine your credibility and people’s willingness to trust/believe you. Long story short, we are all smart and successful people. There is nothing to be gained by acting out or grandstanding in front of others.
·  Encourage your students to check their ego at the door. For the same reason described above, students that lack humility can be incredibly destructive to group dynamics. Also, during candidacy exams, for example, not knowing an answer to a question can be bad, but an honest effort to answer the question with foundational knowledge is usually well received. On the other hand, a student who is extremely confident in their wrongness can really spiral out of control and, in the worst possible scenario, cause their committee to actively argue with them and ultimately fail them. Similarly, if a student cannot own up to a mistake or admit to not knowing something, how much of what they say can you believe?
·  Do what you say you are going to do and if not, keep everyone updated on why plans changed.
·  Show respect for the students and insist that they show respect for one another. Tamper unnecessary inter-student aggression, condescension, and/or bullying.
·  Encourage collaboration and not competition. This can best be done by delineating individual strengths and pairing students/projects accordingly.
·  Remove the assholes (see point 5).
·  Set an example by working harder than they do. This is especially true for when working with your first few students. Your work ethic will be most obvious to them and they will set the tone of the group for several years to come.
·  Encourage student hangouts. Most of this will happen organically but you can do some things to help. This could take the form of holiday and/or annual gatherings at your house, occasionally providing pizza at group meeting, or maybe celebrating birthdays. Also, encourage students who are willing to take the lead and coordinate social gatherings. Even if they are not the strongest student in lab, their role as the social glue of the group can be irreplaceable (that said, it’s important that isn’t the only thing they do).   
·  Celebrate individual and group successes. See question 4 from point 1 above.
·  Work to establish group traditions. These traditions, regardless of what they are, helps develop shared experience and feeling of togetherness.
·  Encourage critical but constructive feedback with and between students.
·  Do not play favorites. There is very little to be gained and it will only lead to resentment and others feeling undervalued. That is not to say you should treat all students the same. In fact, there is no question that if I want something done quickly, there are certain people I turn to first. But avoid becoming too close to anyone preferentially. That is, don’t spend time hanging out or shooting the shit with one student over the rest. Be friendly with your students but not friends. Avoid non-work-related emails or texts of any kind other than emergencies.

7) Set up group meetings as soon as possible. When starting with only a few students, it is easy to put off starting a formal group meeting. After all, when you only have 3 or 4 students you’re already spending a lot of time together. However, setting up a formal group meeting, even if once a month, can be useful for you and your students. For example, group meetings with required literature review helps develop a skill set not necessarily learned in lab. If everyone reads the paper you can do a shared critical analysis of the conclusions, experiments, and even the writing/presentation styles. They can also be used as regular training/teaching opportunities to go over particular techniques or the theory behind the instruments used on a day to day basis. It is also an opportunity for shared group updates including research progress, instrument troubles, safety concerns, and any other issues that affect the entire group. Rotating through presenters gives the students some much needed practice before their prospectus and/or candidacy exams too.

6) Partition your day into formalized time blocks (i.e. 8-10 course content, 10-12 proposals, 12-1 emails, etc.). As professors, we get pulled in many directions simultaneously (i.e. mentoring, research, teaching, committee duties, etc.) and it can often be overwhelming. It is very easy to look at the calendar and say, “I will put of x until next Tuesday because there is nothing on my schedule.” But, by the time Tuesday rolls around, somehow your day is packed and that large block of time disappears. The unfortunate reality is that large, open blocks of time will never come so you cannot rely on them for finishing important tasks. Instead, it is much more effective to partition your time and tasks into blocks throughout the day as listed above. Even these small blocks will be interrupted by other things but a few hours per day on a task can add up to progress.

7) Find an effective strategy to manage your calendar, emails, and to-dos. Given the multifaceted and chaotic nature of the job it is very easy to let things slip through the cracks. Unfortunately, every time that happens your reputation with students, colleagues, editors, organizers, etc. takes a hit. Being disorganized also reduces your productivity. Therefore, I strongly encourage everyone to come up with software and/or hardware solutions to keep track of day to day tasks. For example, the calendar on my phone has been particularly useful in keeping me notified of deadlines, class time, meetings, etc. Every time I learn of a new event, I add it to my calendar with an alarm warning that gives me enough time to run to the building/room I need to be at.

I also regularly use flagging/starring or other email marking strategies so that I don’t miss emails. Then once a day I will carve out some time to specifically address the list of flagged emails. I also keep a hard copy to do list (image below) that categorically divides what I’m working on by:
·       my students and what they are working on,
·       emails that need to be sent,
·       a general “needs to get done” list,
·       pending reviews,
·       teaching to-dos,
·       grant deadlines,
·       pending proposal content list, and
·       a to-purchase list, among others.

Again, I block out a section of time to address many of these items. Nothing is as satisfying as crossing items off this list.  


  1. Interesting. I find that, being a permadoc, the most important aspect to bring about "success" in the lab (developing projects and publish) has little to do with the advisor or the student, but whether the project "works"...meaning, gives you interesting results in a narrative. I have yet to find a faculty member that could figure out how to make a project that wasn't working to work (give positive results), or how to take data and put it an interesting narrative that can be published. Beyond basic laziness, there is little that students or faculty can do to succeed (create papers), in my opinion, it just depends on the project. But, as you point out, environment is important. I really believe a lot of people get faculty positions not so much because they were brilliant, but because they happened to be on projects as grad students or post-docs that worked, and got into high impact factor journals (often because they worked for someone famous in a "top" school).

    1. This was a big part of why I bailed out of my postdoc for a job in industry. I spent almost a year trying to make a catalyst in a certain oxidation state that my advisor wanted. Eventually I did some electrochemical experiments and determined that the compound wasn't stable.

      However, we did manage to get a publication out of it. We just had to change the narrative to fit the data.

    2. "But, as you point out, environment is important. I really believe a lot of people get faculty positions not so much because they were brilliant, but because they happened to be on projects as grad students or post-docs that worked, and got into high impact factor journals (often because they worked for someone famous in a "top" school)."

      This is also what soured me on academia and continuing with research (i.e. doing a postdoc) after my PhD. Even if you have the skills, intelligence, work ethic, drive, and domain expertise, a large portion of success in academic research boils down to intangible factors like the ones you mentioned that are beyond your control. Basically, you have to be lucky and get projects that actually work. Early successes on low-hanging projects can lead to a snowball effect - you get more of your advisor's attention and praise and that will help you along.

    3. I don't fully understand this comment. Taken at face value it suggests that a project either works or it doesn't and those around you (grad, postdoc, PI) have no influence on that outcome. If that is what you mean then I fundamentally disagree. I don't think I have ever observed a project that just "worked." There is always something to troubleshoot, an alternative way to make or measure something, or a different way to attack or think about the problem. But you don't have to do it alone. Having the right person in the room that is aware of your problem is sometimes all it take to hear that suggestion that "makes it work." I fully agree that luck is in involved and there is a pedigree bias in our community, but the diverse perspective, creativity, work ethic, of you coworkers most certainly matters.

      Also, there are thousands of examples, even major shifts in scientific paradigms that are from projects that "didn't work." As in, their project had a particular goal but what they found was far more interesting. Even in my own publication history I have dozens of examples of this:

      1) Here is a project that failed to get a porous metal organic framework but did exhibit single crystal to single crystal conversion:
      J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2004, 126, 10502

      2) This one was a failed attempt at near infrared emitting OLEDs but did generate a general method to predict blue or red shift on benzannulation:
      J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2010, 132, 45, 16247

      3) Here is an attempt at generating a non-innocent, redox active ligand for Pt(II) that ended up being an efficient excited state proton transfer dye:
      Org. Lett. 2011, 13, 1598

      4) This molecules was suppose to bind more strongly to surfaces for water oxidation solar cells but instead ended up finding a new decomposition pathway for bis-phosphonate drugs:
      J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2012, 134, 16975

      5) A low ee excited state proton transfer catalyst ended up enabling a new strategy to enantiorich BINOL:
      Chem. Commun. 2019, 55, 1263

      Sometimes in talks people will lend insights into the discovery pathway but when the paper is written, you rarely hear about the aspects of these projects that "don't work." I did however do a few blog posts describing the process of discovery papers 2 (http://www.chemistry-blog.com/2010/11/05/the-life-cycle-of-a-north-american-research-project/) and 4 (http://www.chemistry-blog.com/2012/10/24/if-necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention-is-inventions-quirky-uncle-named-accident/) if anyone is interested in the untold story behind "failed projects" like these.

  2. I agree with the point to kick out the destructive and lazy people. I came from a PhD lab full of lazy people (some of them destructive); and then I joined a postdoc lab full of energetic and motivated people. The productivity a world of difference.

  3. I've asked many mentors and longtime full professors for advice on picking students. The best advice on which question to ask a student to see if they're fit for research is "Tell me about a long-term project you've worked on and what you learned from it." This can really guide your thinking on how hard someone works, their stamina, and often creativity.

  4. Thanks for the post (and the other ones, Dr. Hanson. There's a lot of very insightful info in here. I'd strongly advise all those interested in an academic research job to bookmark this for future use.

    I "gently" booted a student after 2 years (had them graduate with an M.S.), and that indeed was one of the best decisions I've made during my independent career. The tone of the group changed dramatically - the other students became more positive and harder working in the space of about one month after that student left.

    Agree to some extent with not taking pre-professional undergrad (pre-med, pre-engineering, etc.). However, these students can act as an extra pair of often-reliable hands, so when I've had a few throwaway experiments I wanted to try (the potential seeds of new projects), I've achieved some reasonable success with giving these to pre-professional undergrads. Mostly, though, the most success I've had is with undergrads passionate about research and able to remain in the lab for 2+ years.

    @Anon 3/24 11:15 am: I don't view projects as "working" or "not working" - I think a good project is one that's designed for discovery whether the results are positive or negative. I've had countless "clunker" projects end up in good journals because we discover that a system doesn't behave as one would expect from reading the literature. I always advise my students not to seek out the "successful" result, but rather to set up and execute experiments in order to gain insight one way or another. To be clear, it's a lot easier to shape the narrative when things go smoothly from the outset, but as long as a discovery is made, a narrative to get it published can subsequently be formulated.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20