Confessions of a Reluctant (Academic) Manager

Posted By Pamela on May 21, 2014 | 5 comments

This semi-rant goes out to academics PIs.

I’m soft money faculty. This means my salary comes mostly from grants, sometimes from random writing/performing gigs, and then my university pays a small percent that gets used to cover the time I spend fundraising/writing grants and being on university committees.

When I write grants, I’m competing with teaching faculty who nominally have 9 months/year of their salary paid for by their universities. This creates a culture where I’ve sat on grant review committees and heard, “This person is asking for 20% time just to manage the grant – it’s just a couple students and a postdoc – that seems very excessive”. I’ve heard that kind of comment enough that I budget only 10% of my time as management *at most*. In a normal academic setting that behavior is the norm – in grad school I’d sometimes go a couple months without talking to my advisor because I was “good” on my own. I took care of the undergrads a lot of the time, and I remember seeing Post Docs left to run researchers’ teams for semesters at a time. The faculty in these cases could get away with spending 4 hours a week managing. But… they weren’t so much managing as pushing the young out of the nest and telling them to fly.

As I’ve begun to make more and more friends outside of academia, I’m learning that academia is an unhealthy place where good leadership isn’t nearly as common as impressive bullying. There is a very fine line between being an alpha individual, and an asshole, and the assholes who are truly brilliant are able to thrive in academia by making people believe that their mocking, putdowns, and comments of “if you can’t, then you won’t make it” were their way of preparing people for a life in the harsh reality of academia. Many true leaders are influenced by this so it is really hard to sort. The truth is, individuals who can’t survive under a manager who leaves them to sink or swim on their own will not survive in the long run, because too many managers … well, they leave the people under them to sink or swim entirely on their own because that is “normal”.

As I talk more and more with friends who are managers in government, high-tech (for profit and not-for-profit), and who are management consultants, I’m learning there is a better way – you can actually lead as a manager; you can spend time facilitating your team and helping them thrive by working to improve teamwork, skills, time management, and so much more. I’ve found a couple people willing to spend time mentoring me into being a better manager, and as a result of what they’ve suggested, I’m trying hard to change my management style.

What I’m learning is my personal decision to be a better leader is an unfunded personal-mandate.

I have an intern, 2 programers, 1 post-doc, a part-time research scientist, and various other people who spend random amounts of time on my projects. If I interact with my entire team for 1 hour, interact with the research center as a whole for 1 hour, spend 1 hour a week with each of my project staff, and then assume there is 3 hours of paperwork on average … that is 10 hours of work, and the extra hours it takes for me to try (and I’m still kind of crap) to be a good leader has to come out of somewhere – out of the time I have to spend doing my actual work on our grants (which isn’t an option), or out of the time I spend getting us funding (which isn’t an option), or out of the time I spend writing/performing (which means lowered income), or out of personal time (which is what actually happens).

So this leaves me in this headspace where my better angel is shouting “Why the F— doesn’t academia support a budget that pays for the time needed to be a good manager?” combined with moments where my lesser angel says “Why the F— can’t everyone thrive in an environment where they are left for dead? It worked for me …?” (my inner angels swear a lot). Basically, I really want to be a good leader, but there are days that the personal cost gets to me because … I just want the free time needed to clean out my closet and have all my laundry done at once. Seriously. And on my good days I get mad at the culture of academia and determine I’m going to try and make things better from the inside by staying in academia, and like some good leaders I know (Bryan Gaensler & Jonathan McDowell, I’m looking at you); I’m going to try and be a positive example by taking care of my team. On my bad days – I’m a grouchy B**ch who shouldn’t be allowed to do anything except programming because I will occasionally snipe at the innocent for expecting me to be the type of leader you get in commercial businesses and I have (on my better days) let my team come to expect.

I’m imperfect. Spectacularly imperfect. But I’m trying to institute good management procedures for my team even if it means my laundry will never be entirely put away ever again.

And maybe… maybe … things will someday change so that future PIs have the time budgeted to both manage and put away laundry (if they want to put away laundry).


  1. Pamela,

    Whart you are describing is more common than you know. We all face this problem: how do you manage and get anything done? Here are some tips that I have learned over the years. I hope you’lll find them useful.

    ## 1. Create a schedule for yourself
    One of the biggest causes of feeling overwhelmed is that everything is vying for your attention at the same time. By create a schedule for yourself, you give your mind permission to address some things and ignore others until the approprate time. Combining this with lists and prioritization will make sure that you are doing your best work on what matters most at that time.

    ## 2. Share your schedule with your staff
    If you don’t tell them what you are doing, they will panic. You are still the leader, even when you depart to work on your own. By communicating your schedule to them, you give them permission to do their own work without needed in check with you.

    ## 3. Communicate your expectations
    By setting your expectations with your staff, you ensure that they are addressing what matters most in your eyes. That way, when you are gone, they can carry on working without breaking in on your schedule.

    ## 4. Empower your staff to make decisions
    The biggest reason that your staff will interrupt you is for a decision. By using the art of delegation, you can have them make some of the smaller decisions on their own. This involves a certain amount of trust on your part an theirs. Start small. Get them comfortable with the idea, and review their decisions with them afterward so that you can course-correct at needed.

    ## 5. Clarify what URGENT means
    Not everything is an emergency. Give some parameters where your people can break in on your time. This way, your staff will know they can get to you if they really need to, and the do not feel all alone in a crisis. Keep the bar high enough to make it a big decision to call you in. There needs to be the idea that breaking in on your schedule is, in fact, a big deal, and is only appropriate at specific times.

    ## 6. Stick To Your Schedule, Even When It Hurts
    This is the hardest part: do what you said you’d do. Stop checking in. Stop worrying about what they are doing and **do your work**. Respect the time you have set aside and you’ll find that you can get more done than you expected. When the pressure of your commitments have been relieved, you can return to managing your staff refreshed and clear-headed, ready to provide the leadership they need.

  2. I can relate a little bit to your dilemma… I spent ~40 years as a manager in the computer software biz and put in tons and tons of personal time (my choice) to do the job as I saw fit … and paid the price in my personal life, e.g., leaves not raked causing the grass to die. Integrity can have a price but my DNA demanded excellence when dealing with people.

  3. I highly suggest the book “The Fifth Discipline”, which is about a few related things – dealing with negative archetypes (a set of structures or processes that often invite ‘simple solutions’ that make things worse), and the Learning Organization – the idea that a manager’s primary duty is to teach, and learn – teaching their subordinates to handle all the ‘normal’ problems, handle the ones they can’t handle, and continually learn how to make the organization better and more successful. This is one of the few (only?) books that have been on the Business best seller list twice a decade or two apart.

    Also, there are sociopaths in every field.

  4. Having worked in both the private sector, and now government for the past twenty plus years, all I can say is that academia must be one of the worst places for management. Without trying to be too stereotypical, from listening to friends in the community, reading, they are static, clique ridden, inward looking… Tenure is an outdated system that protects inadequacy. I can only suggest that performance management can work both ways. With subordinates and with management. #’s 1, 2, & 3 above are correct. I would also suggest, what we call, quad charts for projects and initiatives, where the single page is quartered: the top left a schedule; bottom left achievements of the reporting period (weekly or fortnightly, never longer); top right issues that if unattended will cause problems; and finally, bottom right the plan and expected deliverables for the next reporting period. Burdensome a first, but once going, after several months, they are empowering, allow the tracking of success and failure in a transparent fashion, and with management are an effective tool, both for defence and when you use it on them, a way to influence. Not sure if this is at all helpful, but an idea.

  5. How can I help? Very interested in astro – phyiscs with lots of time on my hands to learn.


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