Managing Scientists

By | June 15, 2015

Herding Cats

Scientists by personality, by training and by experience tend to be individualists and sole operators. They worked on their own project as a PhD student, they worked hard and made sacrifices to get their own grant or research fellowship, and once they’ve set up their own lab, they understandably want to do things their own way. When it comes to managing scientists these traits can certainly be a curse – the term ‘herding cats’ seems appropriate as it’s very difficult to convince a group of them to go in the same direction at the same time.

Thankfully, these traits can also be a blessing as managing scientists means managing a group of highly intelligent, (potentially) highly motivated people who want to do a good job. The challenge is making sure they are in an environment where they can flourish. “Managing Scientists“, a book by Alice M. Sapienza, explains why managing and leading scientists is different to other management situations.

Something For Everyone

Management and managing is I think treated with suspicion our derision by scientists, but I think reading this book or one like it can be useful for scientists at all stages in their career.

If you’ve just started out in science it can help you understand the research environment and the importance of creativity. It might also help you understand why there are so many odd balls at your university/institution…

If you’re a (possibly disgruntled) post doc it provides a set of ideal standards you can judge your own situation against, and possibly give you cause to make some changes either in your current workplace, or by moving elsewhere.

If you’ve recently begun a fellowship or a grant, having some formal framework on which to base your management style will help you find your feet when it comes to leading and expanding your research team.

Managing Scientists” also makes it very clear that success in the past is no guarantee of success in the future, so I’m sure professors and group leaders could take something from it, too.

Measuring Success

Sapienza explains that one of the most difficult things about managing scientists and creative workforces is that it is very hard to measure and judge the success of research work. It can be much later (decades in the case of the Higg’s Boson) that the real success or importance of scientific work becomes clear. Indeed, the measurement of success has caused some

Much of the real work of a scientist goes on “between their ears”, and over-managing or mis-managing can upset that work, and have a detrimental effect on the research output of

5 Tips For Managing Scientists

Having read “Managing Scientists“, I’ve pulled out 5 important messages to take from it. Some of them may be universal to all management situations, but quite often they are responses to particular issues brought up by the need to lead and manage creative scientists dealing with difficult and open-ended problems.

These are only an overview of the lessons put across in the book, and I really recommend you go out and find a copy – it’s exactly the kind of book (or a similar one) you’ll be able to find in your university library, or at least ask them to get for you.

1. Be An Effective Leader

One of the key steps in managing scientists is being an effective leader. I’m sure there are dozens, if not hundreds, of books written about what it means to be an effective leader. “Managing Scientists” emphasises a few important traits in the effective leader:

  • Listening well – taking the time to listen to others, and putting aside bad moods when interacting with others.
  • Being open minded – open to different views, ideas and alternatives.
  • Being highly enthusiastic and motivating through enthusiasm rather than coercion
  • Being friendly and calm
  • Be willing to critique other people, without degrading them, and certainly not publicly.

2. Know Yourself and Others

An important step in management is knowing yourself, and knowing others. “Managing Scientists” uses the idea of workplace needs – the things that motivate us and provide long-term happiness at work. Three motivating factors are used:

  • Power – People with a strong tendency for this trait often enjoy opportunities to make decisions and influence others.
  • Achievement – This is a common trait in scientists, and is associated with wanting to feel personally responsible and have a high degree of control over their own work. People with this trait also tend to prefer individual problem solving, whilst being surrounded by other experts.
  • Affiliation – People with a strong association with this trait enjoy interacting with others, and creating a feeling of goodwill between themselves and others.

Our own personal combination of these motivating factors (and others) cause us to tend to favour certain jobs and roles throughout our lives. They also affect how we tend to behave in certain situations.

Different situations may require behaviour that lends itself to one trait rather than another, in which case we might need to make a conscious effort to supress our natural tendencies, and act against our nature.

Identifying these traits in those around us can be useful too. For example we might recognise certain behaviours in our boss or colleague, which would indicate that they might need greater support in one area than another.

3. Find The Right People

When looking for a suitable person to join your group or team, it can be tempting to find someone who will ‘fit’ the existing one – someone with the same background, the same education, and the same world view. As nice as it might be to have an easy to work with almost duplicate of yourself around the place, you’ll find better science and creative work will happen if you instead go for someone a bit odd or eccentric.

It’s odd and eccentric people, almost by their very nature, who challenge the status quo. It’s these kind of people you want in a research organisation. To me this explains why there are so many odd characters at universities – it’s not that universities are the only place who will taken them – it’s that odd people are essential to the whole process.

The importance of heterogeneity to the creative process is one of the reasons why it is so important to support diversity in science – including people from different backgrounds, genders, nationalities and experiences will make everyone’s work better!

4. Create A Creative Environment

Encouraging creativity and a creative environment is essential to make sure scientists keep producing high quality research. To some extent, if you put a group of good scientists together (see point 3), they will produce good, creative research.  If the research environment is wrong, however, the research program may flounder or come to a stop all together.

For good science you need to foster creativity, this might mean having:

  • interesting problems to work on
  • access to a wide range of information, techniques and people
  • the right recognition and support for their work
  • ambiguity
  • a climate of risk willingness

Conversely, factors that can inhibit creativity include:

  • constrained choice
  • competition
  • unclear goals
  • insufficient resources
  • evaluation and time pressure


To help foster this atmosphere and challenge and creativity, a lateral oranisational structure is necessary. This is one without strong notions of superiors and subordinates, and relationships are closer to those of siblings rather than parent-child.

These relationships help to foster communication and collaboration, which in turn encourages debate and intellectual challenge. A lateral structure works best when there is not much in the way of established rules and procedures – exactly the kind of work undertaken by scientists.

Cultivating this lateral, peer-like behaviour should be a priority in any scientific or research organisation. Exactly who is ‘in charge’ in a particular situation will depend on the problems being solved, and who has most suitable skills and experience rather than simple seniority. Goals and targets are still important, but when time or cost constraints become an issue, it can be tempting to try to reign in this “messy” structure and impose some order. Unfortunately this likely to make a situation worse, as it will inhibit the creative process and limit scientific output.

5. Don’t be Complacent

You might think at the moment your research environment is completely conducive to high quality science. This may be true now, but it’s important not to become complacent. The situation may change: the funding environment could change so that you no longer have access to equipment or resources that you had previously relied on, you or another in your group could have a falling out with a key collaborator, you might neglect to improve facilities and find you are falling behind your competitors.

Because of all these reasons it’s important to regularly stop to reflect on whether you are being an effective leader, whether the right people are in place, and whether there is the right environment to achieve high quality scientific research. If that is not the case, then you need to be willing to make changes to improve the situation.

Read¬† “Managing Scientists” for a full discussion of how to manage and be managed as a scientists.