Let’s face this ugly truth: no one teaches you 90% of the nitty gritty stuff that you need to run a lab. Sure, sure, sure, in grad school and postdoc you learn how to generate a hypothesis, how to design experiments to test the hypothesis unambigiously, how to analyze the data and go on to the next set of experiments, and how to fit all of this into the bigger scientific picture. Maybe you learned how to play together nicely in a larger group … or not… during that time.
But when and where during that time did you learn to lead a group, and lead a group effectively? Where did you learn to manage multiple projects going on simultaneously? Where did you learn to manage people with all different personalities and backgrounds? Where did you learn to decide when to keep the peace and when to fire an employee that is toxic in your group? How did you learn to keep track of money in multiple accounts, budget money, and negotiate for resources?
Let’s start with leadership. I realized some time ago that leading comes naturally to me. I don’t think I learned it anywhere- at least I don’t remember working at it. I remember hanging back during grad school and not wanting to put myself out front too much. I remember returning to vet school knowing that I was different, for starters I was about 6 years older than the rest of my classmates, and embracing that for the first time as a strength. I remember making this transition where I became unafraid of sticking my neck out, perhaps too bold at times. But no one taught it to me- it was more a realization that I came to all on my own.
Over the last year my lab group has grown quite a lot. My first couple of trainees are people who seem to me also to be natural leaders, so somehow I quietly developed the naive assumption that everyone that I hired would have those skills. Naive was the key word there. Turns out I have a trainees with a range of different skills in this area. Some of my trainees came from very traditional grad labs where they had a project and they worked on that project in isolation- seems like just the trainee and the PI were involved in these individuals thesis projects. In these cases I think it is safe to say that such trainees haven’t had the opportunity to lead in the way that you have to lead when you are a running a lab, and if leadership isn’t something that comes naturally- then it is something they have to have the opportunity to develop. Some people will probably say that perhaps leadership, or willingness to stick your neck out, isn’t something that SHOULD be taught in graduate school while developing those critical scientific skills. I guess I just think that there is room for both, and I’ll go farther and say that I think one is necessary for the other. After all, the gold standard of all of these NIH training programs is to turn out PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATORS.
Why do I think this is so important? Well, I’ve seen junior faculty come in at various places and have tremendous trouble staffing their labs and managing their staff. You can not make it as a PI without a strong funded research program. You can not build a strong funded research program without staffing your lab, and without developing a training record (or at least it is very difficult). If you can’t staff your lab, where is that preliminary data for grants going to come from???? Leading a lab and managing people effectively is something we right now teach strictly as on the job training the moment junior faculty hit the door of their very first lab- and I think that is a huge mistake.