We are not prepared at all for this

April 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

This post at Nature News caught my attention.

But when it comes to running our labs and managing people, we have to rely on our gut feelings, our limited know-how from mentoring a few students or our observations of our previous advisers. We can often feel ill-prepared.

Ill-prepared ? We are not prepared at all for this. As a young scientist trying to set up my own group, this is unfortunately not the only issue I am facing.

The number of science and PhD students is declining, and the blame is put on a few easy targets. Low salary. Long hours. Limited number of positions, if any. Etc. It is actually worse than this.

If, like me, you managed to secure a permanent or tenure position (congratulations), the most daunting is yet to come. Besides producing good science, a skill for which you have been trained, much more is awaiting you. You have to secure fundings through grants, hire people, manage your group, deal with administrative tasks (our favorite part of the job, isn’t it?), communicate, network locally and globally, make yourself a name in your domain, and so on. And for all these things, we received basically no training whatsoever.

As far as I am concerned, it could have been much worse. I’ve been lucky to do my postdoc in a big lab where communicating results with scientists or with the public is taken very seriously. I learned a lot from my former colleagues on how to design and give a talk, design figures, entrust people and think out of the box.

But for the rest, we are pretty much on our own. Learning as things are coming. You learn how to prepare proposal by having your first ones rejected. You learn to appreciate which people are independent and which ones need more support and attention.

Regarding funding and financial management, I have been lucky to receive a lot of support from the CNRS for my ERC grant, both for preparing the proposal (on the budget side) and for managing it now.
Spending rules are increasingly complex and vary with funding agencies and with time. It’s crazy indeed that we can secure rather big fundings, from institutions, agencies or university, and yet no one is formally trained early on on managing these funds. This should be dealt with when we graduate or shortly after. The situation is slowly changing, at least with the CNRS, but it seems to me that the change is driven more by financial considerations (ineligible money is lost money)or the perspective of being audited by funding agencies than increased efficiency of time and resources and better management of the labs.

If you like facing multiple challenges at once, science is the perfect job for you. I, for one, love it. It’s daunting and exciting.

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