What academics can learn from business I: the hats a PI (or grad student) wears

I spent 9 years working as a computer consultant for a private company, consulting with many very large companies that are household names. At the age of 30 I left business for academia and for the most part am much happier and feel like academia is a much healthier place to work for me. But there are days and times I find myself remembering my days in business and wishing academia would be more like business. I’ve mentioned in the past that I think business has at least the potential for doing a better job of dealing with bullies and harassment.  In general, I’ve found academics have a lot of curiosity about life “on the other side” and what areas businesses do things better. So I’ve planned a series of blog posts on the topic*.

This post is focused on using business language to be more clear about the roles a PI needs to fulfill (and for that matter most graduate students and postdocs need to at least begin learning how to do and in other cases outright take responsibility for on their own). I frequently make the following analogy with my graduate students.  I tell students that they are president of their own company (which starts with only themselves as an employee but often grows to have a dozen or more workers) and they need to know and wear all of the hats a company president wears including human resources, marketing, etc. Even if we’re in academia and not profit-motivated, humans are humans, and human enterprises all have the same basic needs.

So if you buy into the “president of your own company” model, what roles need to be filled? If you look broadly across a company you will find the following departments (you’ll find them in your university too but they are often far removed from you). They are:

  • Core function – every organization has one core function. Making and selling matchbooks. Making and selling cars. Providing consulting services. NGOs advocate in the policy arena or re-purpose land for consevation or recreation or many other functions. As an academic your core functions are research and teaching (order depending on what institution you are at). As a government or NGO scientist or extension specialist at a university your core functions are more likely to be research, outreach and policy. Nobody has much doubt about what their core functions are. And we devote most of our training efforts on making people good at their core functions. But it is helpful from time to reflect on how much time you are spending on your core functions as a way of keeping the other functions in right relationship. The other functions are all important and must happen and you can be badly bitten if you ignore them, but they are ultimately functions in support of your core function and should help, not hinder your core function.
  • Managing the core function – Learning how to do your core function well by yourself is one thing. Getting other people to do it well and in coordination is a whole other thing. In my experience we tend to assume that if somebody is good at doing something themselves, they will be good at managing other people doing it. But that is a fallacy. Management is an entirely new skill set. Some of it is innate, some of it is a skill that can be learned. But being a great theorist, bench genius, or field star does not inform anything about being a manager. Management is more like being a coach. It involves knowing when to set people free and when to reel them in. It involves knowing when to give an encouraging word and when to give a kick in the pants. It involves knowing how to be crystal clear in expectations. It involves finding lots of ways to get data about things one is somewhat removed from. It involves motivating people. And a lot more. Most PIs get no training in management (except in seeing things they don’t want to repeat) and then spend their entire careers becoming a better manager.
  • Strategic vision – Every organization needs to make sure it is not just surviving doing its core function well today. It needs to anticipate the future. The outside world is changing all the time. Change is a fact of life. It is important to be proactive and ahead of the trends instead of reactive. In companies these functions are typically filled by a leadership team and by an external board. In academia the PI has much of the responsibility for strategic vision, although it is good to remember the “external board” part of this function and constantly stay open to outside input. Academics get this by attending meetings and having informal chats with colleagues. And, yes, getting grants and papers rejected.
  • Human resources (HR) – This is one that I find most new PIs are overwhelmed. In a matter of a year they go from being only responsible for themselves to being responsible for half a dozen or more other people. And there are SO MANY challenges that arise. The laws around employing people, the university bureaucracy around employing people, the need to do regular evaluations, the ability to conduct a successful search to identify a good vs a bad hire, the occasional tough need to let somebody go, dealing with the crises in our employees lives that influence their productivity, and etc.
  • Accounting & Purchasing – If you have a startup or grants or lab funding of any kind, you are going to learn way more than you wanted to about accounting practices. As a PI you have ethical and legal final responsibility for the money spent and how it is spent and not overrunning. I find this is a mostly technical function. It is not HR or management. Somebody smart enough to get a PhD can figure out how to buy things and keep track of money. But it is a new skill you will have to learn and time you will have to spend.
  • Sales – I think most academics intuitively know they need to sell their work to some degree. Certainly publishing it is a good first step. But giving seminars, going to conferences, repeating a key point across several papers are all important to success. If I had to guess this is the one function in addition to the core function most academics know about (even if they don’t like it and criticize others for being too sales-y)
  • Marketing – This is one of the functions that I think surprises most academics. I don’t think most academics even know how sales and marketing differ from each other. Sales is tactical – it is about getting the word out about a specific product. Marketing is strategic – it is about deciding what products to produce, how to position them, and building a brand for the company as a whole. As such it ties closely to the strategic planning function. And indeed some of the most famous companies and CEOs get there in no small part because the CEO is a genius in marketing and makes many of the big marketing decisions well. Think Steve Jobs at Apple. And although many will not see this quite as quickly, think Bill Gates at Microsoft – he didn’t have the best public image (but that would be sales), but he was excellent at building a strong brand (basically stealing the label of “how to make the computers in your company work reliably and profitably” from IBM through a very careful series of products that gradually took control away from IBM and kept others out). This may be a controversial statement, but you, as a science PI, have a brand. A public image. You are known for something. And when people think of that something they think of you. Do you know what your brand is? Do you manage your brand? Do you think about how the products you produce reinforce your brand or are inconsistent with your brand. Regardless of the quality of your science, your products (i.e. research output or teaching) will be taken up and successful to a much greater degree when they reinforce your existing brand.
  • General counsel – general counsel has some functions like going to court when necessary that don’t apply. But reviewing contracts applies to PIs. Do you know the terms and conditions of your grant? If you buy an expensive piece of equipment do you read the contract? negotiate changes to that contract? And general counsel is also responsible for making sure more broadly a company behaves in a legally clean and ethical fashion. Do you think about that?

In my experience, academics are fully expecting to have to do their core function and to some degree sales. And people eventually have forced on them whether they want it or not the HR, and accounting/purchasing functions. I would say some PIs pay attention to and are good at “running their lab” which is basically management, but we would all benefit from bringing out management as a skill that PIs need to spend time on and develop. As noted management skills do not magically materialize because someone is good at their core function. But I would argue the remaining functions (strategic vision, marketing) tend to be completely overlooked and as a result done in a haphazard reactive way.

So there you have it. I’ve just claimed that being a science PI is the same as being the head of a company. And that you have to wear 8 different hats, most of which are filled not just by different people but by whole different departments in a company. And only about two of which your training has prepared you for. And if you’re graduate student (and even more a postdoc) you should already be thinking about core function, strategic vision and marketing hats and start learning as much as you can about the other hats. No wonder people find starting in a PI job to be such an overwhelming whirlwind!

What do you think? Do you buy the analogy? Do you find it comforting to break down the complexity and realize how little training you had for many of the hats? Do you think there is a function I left out or that shouldn’t be on the list?


*At the moment I am also planning posts on the best business books I’ve read that helped me to learn these functions and one on how academia could adopt a better culture around meetings from business. But I’d be curious if readers have other topics on this theme they would be interested in.

10 thoughts on “What academics can learn from business I: the hats a PI (or grad student) wears

  1. Interesting post, Brian.

    I have a mostly tongue-in-cheek question for you: in your analogy, at a teaching-focused university, are students the clients or are they the products?

    Would your answer differ for private and public universities?

    • It’s a good question. Half toungue-in-cheek and half profound.

      I would say that most administrators want students to be clients (to maximize revenue). But a really good teacher still sees students as products, not in the sense of being impersonal or mass-producing, but as in its our job to have a clear vision of where students need to learn and get them there.

  2. Great post, and after 30 years as a prof I still struggle with being good at some of these roles. As a grad student I definitely didn’t see them coming.

    One major difference, though, surely has to be in chain of command. In my (very limited) private-sector experience, one thing I was never in doubt about was who I answered to. The org chart was very clean and very clear. As a PI, not so much! Who gets to tell me what to do? In a few cases, my Chair; in some cases (like teaching), my Dean; in others, a VP; in others, somebody in HR; in still others, nobody at all (except that I’m judged later by various mechanisms on whether I should have done whatever it is I decided to do). This can be both frustrating and also very liberating, and if there’s a place the analogy breaks down, this might be it.

    • Professors certainly do (and should) have some accountability above. But I guess in comparison to my experiences in business, the chain of command above is so different/weak it is almost as if there is no chain of command above, hence the analogy to being a president. In business I talked to my boss daily. I can go a whole semester without being given anything like an order at a university. Of course like you say there is a different (and more diffuse) accountability until one gets tenure.

  3. This is very interesting post. I find the analogy really useful. In my personal experience a learned a lot when I started to hang out with people in bussines. For example the relationship they have with time management and having a more “product” oriented approach. I think it is really easy for us to spend a lot of time “enjoying” our work without having a purpose in mind (I can spends hours under the microscope just being amazed at what I see, which I did during my PhD), but in bussines time is money, and I think that, in some cases, having that pragmatic mentality in becoming more efficient with our time.

    Looking forward to read more about this

    Thanks for the amazing post!

  4. I worked in industry for 15 years before going back to get a PhD in ecology, at the age of 42. As a non-traditional graduate student, my #1 struggle with academics is the lack of management skills in PIs and department administrators. Things that are obvious to me from my own management experience are often overlooked. Sometimes it works out okay, but often it doesn’t. I’ve been a vocal advocate for formal management training for PIs, but as a graduate student my voice carries no weight. I believe that every new PI should be required by the department or institution to go through formal management training. Ideally, this should happen at the post-doc level, *before* a scientist takes a full-on management (PI) job. While I instinctively recoil from suggestions that we should model academia on the corporate world, recognizing that good management skills are needed in both realms is just plain smart. Thank you for this post, and I officially add my voice to the choir.

    • Sounds like we have many shared experiences and perspectives. I completely agree. I wouldn’t want to copy the hierarchical, drive-to-win, profit-driven business world, but I do wish people in academia could copy the basics practices of good management and how to have an efficient meeting!

      • Coincidentally, I read a piece recently suggesting in seriousness that the reason businesspeople, lawyers, and military officers run the world is not (just) that they control the money, laws, and guns, but because they’re trained to run meetings (including “do we need to have a meeting at all?”), and to make sure that there’s follow-through on meeting outcomes.

      • Very real amounts of time are wasted on meetings in academia. Some of that is an unavoidable consequence of needing more meetings due to peer governance which I on the whole prefer over the hierarchical style of business. Although its not a slam dunk. But a hierarchical model only works with shared well-defined goals which I don’t think really applies to academia, so I don’t feel like peer governance is a choice

        But the other half of wasted time in meetings which amounts to a very real chunk of wasted time out of my whole day or week is completely avoidable.

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