by Roger G. Erickson, Ph.D., NIMH

The "training" received in the course of postgraduate training fellowships of every kind-both inside and outside NIH-is almost invariably an absolute joke. It might help if there were guidelines for providing real training just as there are for manuscript authorship. For example, a postdoc must have at least one independent project, must personally present the data at a meeting, and must publish it as the sole author. In addition, he or she must participate in reviewing a paper and must apply for a grant. That would constitute training and preparation for an independent career. Otherwise, postdocs are nearly universally treated as workers who must find their own way to an independent career. Even having guidelines won't guarantee anything. What students need most is for someone to take the time to give them advice.

I've worked in eight different labs since I started as an undergraduate. The value placed upon human management was clearly evident or lacking in each. Some researchers successfully develop the talent possessed by students. Others simply attempt to use what's apparent on the surface or even try to force desired results without assessing skills or weaknesses. There is no doubt in my mind that the first approach is far more productive and efficient than the second and third. Everyone has something to learn and every lab can benefit by assessing what each student needs to learn. The needs are often not related to technical skills. A typical lab includes some combination of the following types of students and postdocs:

1. A fairly sophisticated person from a well-to-do family with one or more professional parents. Went to a good school. Often abrasive and aggressive, somewhat arrogant even if unaware of it. Often masters lab politics, is savvy, and is comfortable with surviving in laboratory environment even when not particularly interested in science per se.

2. A Wunderkind bright enough to have gotten this far while remaining totally naive about every other aspect of life (i.e., can program your computer in assembly or devise complicated mathematical models overnight, but can't change a flat tire, feed himself or herself, or develop any personal relationship).

3. A constant complainer who drags on for years while never learning how to function independently despite possessing particular skills. Is often a source of friction in lab.

4. A very unsophisticated person who is bright enough to learn everything but is intimidated by everything. May come from a dysfunctional family, a poor, inner city neighborhood, or from a backward coal-mining town in East Tennessee. May be quite bright and reasonable, but is uncomfortable with aggressive, cynical co-workers or sudden exposure in the form of lab meetings, presentations at meetings, and attempts to write papers.

5. A nice, well-rounded person who is a pleasure to work with and watch develop.

Unfortunately, talent or genius is unpredictably distributed among these people and people of other descriptions. A good manager sees each person for what he or she is, and by taking the time to give advice, sees that each learns the small things needed to work well without supervision, to plan a career, and, eventually, to manage his or her own lab. After five to 10 years of such effort, a good manager often has a strong lab or nationally respected department staffed by a mature and secure group of excellent and committed scientists and/or technicians. The workers (and, ultimately, their field of endeavor) benefit by getting early and constructive feedback on what they need to learn, rather than criticism for what they fail to produce. Perhaps most importantly, the students learn to take an interest in each others' careers, in their department or lab, and in the state of their field. Everyone wins if the top priority is training people instead of just producing scientific results.
Roger G. Erickson
A bad manager takes the same group of people and does nothing except expect them to produce results. At some end point, the individuals are judged as having "produced" or "not produced" and are either promoted or terminated, and the cycle continues. In this setting, survival of the fittest may not be a valuable strategy for either the lab or its field since "survivors" will perpetuate poor management practices. Many of the characters go through several cycles in other labs before finally finding their own ways to a successful strategy or to a more rewarding or more suitable career. The length of this process depends just as much on the quality of the people one learns from (i.e., peers and managers) as on individual talent.

After spending just one week in a lab, it is possible to predict which postdocs are likely to succeed and which are likely to fall by the wayside. People from excellent families, neighborhoods, or schools do indeed have an initial advantage and can, at least at first, be used more effectively than those from less sophisticated backgrounds. However, people with less preparation but with adequate or superior talent or abilities are nearly invariably underutilized for long periods of time-a tremendous waste of resources.

Most successful corporations recognize that their major expenses and most valuable commodities are almost invariably their work forces and not their products or raw materials. Academia, including government labs, is one of the last places where the long-term value of human-resource management is underappreciated. There are many examples of scientific "managers" who have developed remarkable labs or departments staffed by independent scientists whose collective results far outstrip the individual achievements of the "manager." Unfortunately, there are many more examples of scientists who have achieved some degree of personal acclaim, but who never contribute to formation of a productive group and who never pass their skills on to the next generation of scientists. Over time, the legacy of a strong department or lab is almost always more valuable than the accomplishments of any particular person. In terms of a return on investment, a manager who fails to develop a strong lab or department is a much more expensive mistake than a postdoc who doesn't publish enough.

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