Classifying Group Leaders

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.

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17 Responses to Classifying Group Leaders

  1. and where are you in this grand scheme Professor Donald? 😉

  2. Stephenemoss says:

    A colleague of mine at UCL, Professor Anthony Finkelstein, recently blogged on some of the different types of academic leadership.

    This always makes for an interesting topic, since a large part of the role of a modern academic leader (Department Head for example) seems to be that of a ‘senior administrator’. Most of the truly inspirational scientists I can think of do not occupy positions of leadership – other than running their own research teams.

  3. @thonychristie – I think I should leave it to those students of mine – past or present – who read this blog to answer your query!

    @stephenemoss – Yes I saw that blogpost, which was written in an entirely different vein i.e. seriously and also dealing with more senior members of the academic hierarchy. It would be nice to think that a group leader who couldn’t lead their own group would not progress to managing a larger unit, but that may be too optimistic. Nevertheless, the skills aren’t identical. The phrase I have heard most often about being a head of department is the need to ‘herd cats’. I don’t think that is a good description of looking after PhD students – although being able to relate to people is probably a core skill in both cases.

  4. In a similar vein – when I was on sabbatical at the NIH years ago, there was a postdoc (now an Associate Prof somewhere, I believe) who did a hilarious cartoon series in the NIH Catalyst newsletter. One that I particularly liked was The Nine Types of Principal Investigator.

  5. LL says:

    Spot on Athene. I have certainly met/heard of most of these, and would agree that the ‘blind’ PI is perhaps most prevalent. Sometimes the blindness is benign… Other times it amounts to shocking neglect of duties/responsibilities….

    The failure of the ‘system’ (universities, fellowship awarding bodies etc.) to value leadership and people management skills at the selection/entry points to an independent academic career is frankly shocking to me. I have been on the wrong end of some quite horrendous supervision from extremely bright and successful young(ish) scientists who found themselves thrust into leading research teams, on account of their success as an individual, when they clearly had no natural aptitude for the job. No support/training was apparently offered to them, except in sweeping under the carpet the parades of unhappy students/post docs who prematurely beat paths to the exit doors of their labs. I felt sad for the PIs, they were generally stressed and unhappy, and of course also for the young people whose futures were damaged by their experiences working with them.

    I sincerely hope this is something that Universities will take more seriously in the future. Especially as there is a growing expectation for research to be done collaboratively by teams of temporarily employed students and post docs, something which requires skills that do not necessarily segregate with academic brilliance.

    There must be so much we can learn from other types of well-run, successful organisations about identifying, promoting and training people with the skills, including team leadership and ‘people management’, that are so obviously lacking in many parts of our organisation.

    Rant over. Oh, an I enjoyed the post as ever!

  6. CB says:

    I’ve also encountered The Guru, who used team meetings as a captive forum for their speeches on any subject that took their fancy. Anyone attempting to voice their own opinion would be met with a moment of blank surprise, before The Guru continued unabated. Funny in retrospect, but an annoying waste of time!

  7. Anon says:

    I totally agree. I had absolutely no training for research management of any kind. The first RA that I managed I made a really bad job of. S/he was not the easiest person to motivate, but that’s not really the point: I am certain his/her career suffered as a result of my inexperience. I had to make it up as I went along, learning by doing, and making mistakes all the time.

    The same happened when I headed up my own group and when I then became Head of Department. Eventually you improve, but only by getting things badly wrong, and often upsetting or angering those who work for you, and perhaps affecting their careers negatively. You don’t mean to do this, but it’s impossible to avoid when nobody tells you what you ought to be doing, no training is required, and you are stressed by the need to get the research done. Sure, the university will put on various courses in management skills, but as the over-stretched researcher that you are, trying to make a career for yourself, you don’t have time to go on those courses, or the research won’t get done.

    The only way to solve this would be for universities to make training mandatory. Anyone with new management responsibilities (as in from the moment they supervise a single postdoc) could be required to sign up to certain training courses as a condition of HR releasing the advert for an RA post, for example. It won’t make all good researchers into great managers overnight, but at least it might help people work out what they ought to be trying to achieve. More importantly, perhaps, it might mean that junior researchers are better supervised and have more successful careers.

    • Dave Fernig says:

      Ahh, leadership training. Lots of it on offer nowadays from HR, but sadly it is largely marriage counselling delivered by unmarried counsellors. Informal training, aka mentoring, is brilliant and I have benefitted tremendously from this – rather like a tutorial system.

  8. Alasdair Taylor (@AWTaylor83) says:

    I found that some academics managed their PhD student/PDRAs based upon their own experiences as a PhD student/PDRA, i.e. expecting their researchers to get on with it in the way that they got on with it. As the anonymous post above points out, this will often be due to lack of experience in management and a need to learn on the job. I also think new PhD students could do with some help/training in what a PhD entails and how to get the most out of the student-supervisor relationship. Sometimes I think there is an unrealistic expectation of what has to be done in a PhD and how much a supervisor can offer. I have often heard it said that PhD students end up managing their supervisor and not the other way around!

  9. Etaya says:

    One such classification chillingly reminded me of my MS advisor. The whole experience was, well, educational, but not in the way that I had thought it would be. That said, my current PhD advisor is great: thoughtful about the science and the people in the lab, not arrogant, able to guide me in my project without overreaching, I could go on. I wonder, Dr. Donald, maybe you can add one more classification to your list: that of a good group leader? What kind of qualities would you envision for this person? Of-course, different students/post-docs get along better with different advisors, but it would be helpful for us younger researchers to not only have an idea of the warning signs to look out for (as in the current list!), but also qualities to actively seek out in our supervisors. Thank you!

    • The trouble with trying to describe a good group leader is that they don’t have one, over-riding characteristic. What they do will depend on the student – which is how it should be. So, for a confident student (assuming that confidence is well-placed) the best thing to do may be to leave them to get on with a project till it reaches a conclusion or gets stuck. That might be several weeks or even months. Such a course of action would be disastrous for a more nervous – even if confident – student. The supervisor has to assess the difference, probably rather fast. Furthermore, they have to be able to give balanced feedback in order to stop the over-confident going wrong as much as the under-confident never getting going. They need to be blunt when necessary, but encouraging on other occasions – even possibly for the same student. So, not easy to describe/satirise. Sorry! I hope you come across these sainted individuals.

      • Etaya says:

        Thank you, Dr. Donald, for your response. Indeed, it seems that to become such an advisor, one has to always be assessing and re-assessing a student’s potential, character, and progress, and making guidance decisions based on the results of such evaluations. I think such a person needs to do a fair amount of self-(re)evaluation to be so thoughtful with others. Of-course, such individuals are rare, independent of scholarly achievement (although some may argue the relationship may be inversely proportional, I think there are enough counter-examples to counter that claim).
        And of-course you are correct, satires are far better suited to the archetypes of the highly dysfunctional supervisors, of which there are many active examples, unfortunately. Thank you again for your thoughtful blog posts, they are always educational and entertaining!

  10. I chuckled in pained recognition at “Professor Hand-holding”.

    Number of drill bits I broke before the day my PhD supervisor watched me drill a hole in a metal box? Zero. Number of drill bits I’ve broken since? Zero. Number I broke in the ~10 minutes he was watching me? I stopped counting after the fourth…

  11. zinemin says:

    Wow, this is so true.
    I have had experiences with all these types. Maybe I would add one more: Prof. DoesNotCare — a group leader who neither really cares about the science, nor the group members, whose science ideas are outdated but who also leaves people in peace. Not the worst option, I think.
    I also like your observation that it is Prof. Arrogant/AlphaMale who is most prone to favouritism. This is my experience too. Unfortunately they have no clue how bad this is for the motivation of everyone else.
    The one type that I personally hate most on this list is Prof. Hand-holding. As you say, it is exactly the profs who do not actually have any useful advice to give that breathe down the PhD students’ necks and expect weekly reports from postdocs.

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