It’s the season for lists: best photos of the year, best quotes, best-dressed (even worst-dressed) celebs, momentous moments – you name it, there’s probably a list for it somewhere on the web. Since I’ve just covered the other seasonal topic of New Year’s resolutions over at the Guardian’s Occam’s Corner, I shall add my own list to the multitude out there: a list of species of group leaders.
My last post discussed a charismatic, but also autocratic leader in the form of Pierre-Gilles de Gennes. He could get away with being autocratic because he was inspirational – and also right about what he wanted his team to do far more often than he was wrong. But this cannot be said of many group leaders, some of whom should probably never have been left in charge of a dead parrot, let alone a group of nervous PhD students. At a recent consultation event for researchers carried out in Cambridge, the lack of interpersonal skills and interest in developing the careers of those in their care of some of attendees’ line managers was much talked about.
As with my previous identification guides to academic species (professors, committee chairs and members of university and grant-giving committees), what follows represent distorted amalgamations of individuals I have known, heard about or allowed my fevered imagination to construct. Consequently, any similarities to academics, alive or dead, are purely fortuitous. Nevertheless, I suspect you may recognize some strands of colleagues of your own in what follows. I will, for neutrality’s sake, assign a Chair to each of these individuals, but their failings are as likely to apply to the early career group leader as the grizzled greybeard (or grey-haired for those who lack beards) variety.
Professor Tickbox has read all the material from the HR department, knows what is expected of them in terms of careers’ advice/appraisal and goes through the required motions. Once a year each timid – or even more confident – student or postdoc will get their 5 minute interview at which the requisite forms are produced, whisked through and signed off without a chance for reflection or genuine dialogue. The braver individuals may attempt to spin this interview out by introducing a few questions starting off ‘Would it be possible…’ or perhaps ‘I understand it would be helpful if….’ but is unlikely to get further before a brusqe response stops the flow: ‘I think you’ll find I’ve dealt with all your questions; do take a copy of this form away with you’ and the poor unfortunate will be ushered sharply out of the room as the next victim enters. This is a professor who believes in form over substance.
Professor Oversolicitous If you have read Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, you will recognize this person is a kindred spirit to Miss Shaw. This is the kind of person who will say (as Miss Shaw does say in the book) ‘I can’t think why she shouldn’t have told me. My students always come to me with their troubles.’
Well, maybe yes, but often the group secretary is thought to be a better ear for student’s troubles than their supervisor, and sharing a regular pint of beer down the pub and letting hair down on both sides may well only lead to trouble later on. At times when some forcefulness is required, something along the line of ‘you promised me that draft by last week. You won’t be able to go to that conference in Hawaii if you don’t produce it within the next 24 hours’, the fact that boozy evenings have been shared may weaken a professor’s stance. Taking an interest in a student’s life beyond the lab is totally reasonable to build up a well-rounded picture of the individual and be able to provide support, but becoming a confidante may be less desirable and less likely to provide the right stimulus to hard work. Striking the right balance is probably one of the harder challenges for a newly-established group leader as they move onwards and upwards from merely being a group member to running their own group.
Professor Hand-holding has something of a similar bent. This is the person who breathes down a student’s neck every time they attempt a new experiment, sometimes fairly literally at the bench, although they have nothing useful in the way of experience, expertise or wisdom to offer. In fact, all such actions do is to make the hand shake at crucial moments so that the powder spills or the precious sample floats away in the water bath. Students have to profit by their own mistakes of course, but doing so when someone else is watching and (it is to be feared) internally criticising under the disguise of ‘helping’ is counter-productive. Professor Hand-holding merely conveys a complete lack of trust and their actions convey a claustrophobic miasma of failure. This course of action is of course quite different from requesting to see a repeat of some unexpected or critical result after success has crowned the first attempts at a new experiment. That can be considered merely appropriate caution and checking on experimental reproducibility on the part of the professor.
Professor Arrogant When it comes to seeking advice from Professor Arrogant (who may also masquerade as Professor AlphaMale, without meaning to imply that such a role can only be occupied by men), the inexperienced researcher may well suffer extreme anxiety, unless they can match like for like in such a conversation – unfortunately in itself a risky strategy. The trouble is these Professors have forgotten, if indeed they ever knew, what it is to be uncertain about their own abilities or career paths. They cannot comprehend anything other than an academic career as being an acceptable destination and attempts to ask about alternatives, even trying to get experience of alternatives, lead to sneers and snide remarks about ‘waste’. These are the ones students should fear, as they will get nothing constructive from such a conversation, merely a feeling of inferiority.
Of course, the brilliant favoured son or daughter, for whom great things are envisaged, may get something helpful out of such a conversation. Perhaps they will be given advice as to whose lab to move on to next to further career aspirations, or a helping hand in obtaining a conference presentation at some important meeting. But the fact that one member of the group may be so favoured, only makes the lot of the remainder more bitter and miserable. It is best to try to establish the credentials of such a professor before ever signing up for the team, unless your own arrogance appears to match theirs.
Professor Blind is perhaps the commonest of all group leaders. Nothing wrong with them, but little that is right either. They potter on – or even steam ahead if they are successful – without ever really noticing the fate of their team. The group members are simply there to deliver results, ideally reliably and on a regular basis. They aren’t perceived as individuals with characters of their own, so much as pairs of hands with few needs beyond the requirement of obtaining a PhD ultimately (does it really matter so much when? Probably not to this professor.). Talking through future career directions with each person probably simply never crosses their mind, although they may well consider the timing of writing papers because that redounds to their own benefit. However, there is always the possibility, that if a brave soul accosts them to ask advice they can be pinned down sufficiently to give the matter due consideration. Their experience may not prove very helpful – what do they know of the world beyond academia? – but there is no malice aforethought in their actions. They are simply simple souls who have never attended any sort of people-management course, who think that the ability to read papers 24/7 and obtain funding is all that is required to make them a good group leader.
There are many worthy, sometimes even inspirational, leaders out there. The trouble is that individuals are not chosen for senior posts on the basis of their leadership skills to any large extent. The ability to raise money, yes. The ability to get the most out of young lives entrusted to their care is much less obviously assessed or valued at the appointment stage. Universities should worry more about this, if not at appointment certainly swiftly thereafter when the new group leader is (or should be) being mentored, instead of leaving things to chance. Meanwhile junior researchers suffer, too often ending up having to take pot luck when it comes to seeking advice and ducking the more outrageous actions (or inaction) that is their daily fare.