Leaders and directors

Ilia Efimovich Repin – “Barge-haulers on the Volga”

Judging how much control to exert over a research project is one of mentoring’s trickiest balancing acts.

With so much hype focused on research results (gene linked to autism! new cancer drug!), it’s easy to forget that a laboratory’s output is measured not just in data, but also in people. Science is a human activity, and while a research group populated solely by robots and technicians might be some people’s idea of perfection, it remains essential that labs also train the next generation of scientists.

A problem though is that this takes time, and it takes longer and longer to bring new students up to speed. The rate at which the scientific community is adding to the sum of human knowledge means that there is more and more material – both conceptual and technical – that needs absorbing in order to train someone properly. Gone, alas, are the days when you could make a Nobel Prize-winning discovery just by sitting down with paper, pencils, a microscope, and a clutch of nematode eggs. Current students have to master a wealth of background material as well as grasp techniques that make Sulston’s tools look Stone Age.

In short, undergraduates and younger postgraduates need directing. They need projects structuring for them because there simply isn’t the time for them to figure things out for themselves. While there might seem something noble, pure, and empowering in letting them grope around in the dark until, magically, they find the lightswitch (or fall down a trapdoor, never to be seen again), it’s far better to organise their work for them so that they have a template to use for the development of their own research philosophy. The era of the youthful autodidact is all but over.

Conversely, it’s also essential that every young scientist learns how to be independent and at some point a supervisor has to stop the hand-holding, step back, and let the scientist-to-be loose to follow their own instincts. In other words, experienced trainees – postdocs and late-stage PhDs – don’t need directing, they merely need to be led. Some encouragement, some inspiration, some advice, but only enough input to keep them going drastically off-course. Ultimately, the goal in mentorship must be to go from directing to leading to hosting – having a fully-fledged independent scientist operating autonomously within the group.

Judging when to direct and when to lead is a high-wire balancing act, however. Both approaches are appropriate, depending on who you’re dealing with (and taking the wrong approach is a recipe for discontent and disaster). Try to direct a scientist for too long, to exert too much control over their work, and the relationship will start to chafe and potentially result in conflict. Give people too much independence too soon, and they’ll be homing in on that open trapdoor like a bloodhound to a badger hole.

It’s a picture that gets further complicated due to the differing psychologies that a group leader will encounter. Some people think they only need leading when actually they still need directing (a tough, tough route to navigate); others think they need directing or want to be directed when they could or should be changing out of nappies and into research underpants. A lot will depend on the kind of instruction they’ve had up to that point and how naturally independent they are.

It’s worth stressing that both mentors and group members need to remember that young scientists are in the group primarily to learn, to be trained – in a sense, their data is a means of paying their way, earning their keep, and singing for their supper. If they were there solely to generate data on behalf of the group leader and personal development be damned…well, we’re back to the pro-robot stance. 

And while leading is more hands off than directing, it still entails responsibility. Leadership can’t mean a kind of benign abandonment. Leaders need to still take an interest in their subordinates and provide input when required. Even the most independent PhDs and postdocs are still likely to be short on experience in terms of strategic decisions – when to walk away from an assay or question, when to publish, and what’s the most important thing to do next.

Leaders and directors – mentors have to be both.

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