Leadership & Science

Breaking down the personality of the scientist.

How does the personality of the scientist affect their leadership in research? Here I reflect on how important teamwork in research is (in both academia and industry), but also outline why bad leadership deters so many young researchers from continuing in research, particularly within academia. Academic research is somewhat predictable, it employs academics based on their career progression and it acknowledges that an academic can continue to build their careers and bring new opportunities to their institutions. Industry now has become either the place for recent graduates or those fed up with academic research. I once found myself in a room of fed up post-docs now employed by the same employer. In a way, I felt that my own linear experience through the academic lifestyle and specific interests where no place for this role in industry.  

The reason I feel why industry work attracts so many former academics is because of the opportunities to develop more professional skills and have better career progression. Leaders in industry include project managers, typically with extensive portfolios of experience. They are employed to drive a project forward, at a fast, but efficient pace and delivery results in a timely manner. These people have strong leadership skills, because they can spend more time overseeing the project that they are directly responsible for and set realistic timelines. These characteristics are largely due to the environment where they work in and because of the management structure of most industry work. Generally, it is structured in a hierarchy with managerial responsibility given to different people in different roles, such that at each lower level, these roles become more specific for the project. And this way, there is also a large gap between those making decisions and those executing such decisions. Conversely, because of the overall freedom in academic research, as research staff, we are often insecure whether we should take the initiative on decisions or not.  

Another aspect that separates industry from academic research is how research ethics are established. Industry work is like professional undergraduate practicals; you conduct your work as tasks given on each day. There is no room for individualism, not because they don’t encourage freedom of the scientific personality, but because whatever is done needs to be regulated, largely because you represent the company you work for. Not to mention, there’s an overpowering sense of constant responsibility over results produced, as these directly reflect your performance. I don’t rate this as the same responsibility over producing sound results for publication, as I believe that the driving force behind industry-led research is much greater than that of academic research; but this may depend on the field of research. That’s not to say that academic research has less vital driving forces, a lot of the funding comes from tax payer’s money or foundations that expect results, but in industry, people appear to have a greater appreciation of the value for the money that is pumped into projects. Appreciation of the funding is something that academic research needs to work on in my opinion.

In academic research, while you are in a way a representative of the university you work for, you have a greater freedom over your work and how you approach it, whether you are a principal investigator or not. That makes leading an academic group more of a personal task, rather than delegating for higher executives. Yes, you need to keep generating research outputs and satisfy certain figureheads within the department or faculty, but your performance or rather competency as a principal investigator is evaluated over time. However, this is no longer the era when academics have permanent positions. In 2012, there was controversy over plans to make academic staff redundant at Queen Mary, University of London. Many felt that those made redundant were lecturers who were spending more time with students rather than research, and therefore were generating fewer annual research outputs.

And here’s where the system starts to break down. I believe that the success of academic research should be measured in the terms of outcomes, which is not the same as outputs. An output of academic research is number of papers published; it is something tangible. True, writing research articles is a way to drive research forward and show that research has been successful or at least successful to some degree. These outputs are important because they show what has been produced, but they don’t necessarily recognise the value of what has been done or how it impacts other aspects of science or life. And if we drive research to search for outputs, we start to indoctrinate ourselves to get positive responses from published artefacts. And it is precisely why I think that young researchers rush into sending manuscripts for publication, in journals that might have less strict requirements, simply to gain more another tick on number of publications. We are counting numbers and no longer quality.

So how does this influence leadership? This is where it comes back to the personality of the principal investigator and basically everything that they have experienced during their careers. Frankly, their ability to lead depends on their previous experiences and training and until recently, there hasn’t been importance in the training of new research scientists. Some prominent projects have recognised this and have started to organise workshops to teach academics how to be leaders. However, most young researchers who have been granted a fellowship for independent research will not have experience in leading a research team. In fact, at the start of their careers they might receive little support from anyone. They might also not have the time at that stage to receive training in other skills, as the pressure to publish or do other administration tasks relating to academic roles might take precedence.  And here is how the snowball effect starts. Academic research is such a competitive field that little significance or time is placed on learning other professional skills such as large-scale project management, leadership or other transferable skills, which would be essential for other jobs.

We might learn about small-scale project management by working in small groups and managing small projects, but this doesn’t teach us the skills to be project managers. What we do learn is how to work well with others and form collaborations and recognise the importance of good communication and teamwork. But teamwork in science is a strange principle. To me, it broadly means getting well with others and that when asking for help, someone will enthusiastically offer to help. But this is a sliding scale. And that is because in academic research we are encouraged to be ourselves and are, in a way, not restricted to conform into a specific professional personality. Often principal investigators try to be friendly and yet exert authority over their projects, but I believe that most of the time their individual personality comes across more than their authority. And what we get is this mixture of the two. We need leadership to be positive and specific, and the authority figure to have control over the expression of their personality when providing feedback. Showing off our personalities as authority figures doesn’t necessarily make us bad leaders, but if we respond to a situation in a way that reflects our personalities first, there is no normality in the sense of how feedback is given or how relevant it is. This means that the way our leadership comes across depends on how we are feeling that day. We can also choose to be selectively more open to some and not to others, because while we do acknowledge some authority boundaries, we are open enough to express how we feel. This is not good for the team dynamic that we might be wanting to establish.

We, however, cannot generalise this , though what we can say for certain is that the personalities and ways of leading may be different, the psychology behind this behaviour is the same. Despite the faults in leadership, group leaders want others to grow and develop as better scientists. Institutions and funding bodies of large projects also have the responsibility to be create more opportunities for young lecturers to be properly trained in how to adapt to different environments where their leadership is necessary. But you also need to know which advice works and which doesn’t and how to apply this to your research group. Remember that acknowledging that teamwork is necessary in science is halfway to becoming a good leader, but it doesn’t make you a better team player. It is about structuring the leadership and showing control over situations. The true leader is the one that reaches out to others, understands them and pushes them to the top.

About the Author Emmanuel G Escobar

Founder of Pressure Ink.

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