Where science and tech meet creativity.

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).