This is a post about a species most young scientists have probably encountered at some point or another: terrible bosses. The PIs who are insecure, awful at recognizing and resolving conflicts, or distrustful control freaks. The group leaders, who think bullying employees, insisting on long working hours or installing a no-holiday policy will create a productive work environment. Or the (often young) PIs who are still so unaware of their position, and so involved in promoting themselves rather than their group, that they completely neglect their students/postdocs. The list goes on. Over the years I have seen many of my friends, who started off as enthusiastic, talented students, become victims of such bosses, and leave research disillusioned. And every time this happened, I have wondered how those PIs got their position in the first place?
Boss from Hell (or rather, the Death Star).
Well, this summer, I have spent a large part of my “holiday” writing postdoc fellowship applications. One thing that struck me was that all the fellowships I applied for entirely failed to consider non-research scientific activities in their evaluations. And it occurred to me: maybe this is where the problem starts. Maybe this is a bottleneck in the system, where scientists are selected based purely on their research results, without any consideration of their personality or people skills.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not a complete heretic. I do think scientific achievement should be judged primarily based on our research. Note: “primarily”, not “exclusively”. If nothing else, I think that partaking in activities, like science outreach, mentoring students, writing a blog, organizing meetings/workshops/journal clubs etc, should provide someone a competitive edge over someone else with an otherwise similar research output.
But I’ll even go further. While someone’s immediate scientific output might be reflected well by their research results, there’s more to it. Science is a way of thinking, a way of identifying interesting questions and finding a method to answer them. Science also has it’s own ethical and moral code, In addition, much of science involves team work, and depending on the project and/or the career stage one might have very different roles within such a team, from “contributor only” to “decision maker” or “conflict mitigator”, and fulfilling different roles requires social skills, some of which can only be obtained with experience. So, actually, long-term scientific output will depend not only on our own research, but also on how well we can perform different roles within a team, and on even more extended time-scales also on whether we can raise a future generation of scientists, who have learned (with our help) the methodology and ethics of science. But developing these “soft” skills, which a PI might need, requires time and energy. Time and energy that would probably otherwise be invested in research. So, in fact, when postdoc fellowship applications look at research output only they may well be selecting for young researchers who place no emphasis on such skills and focus all their attention on research instead.
This, I think, is tragic. The impact may not be visible tomorrow or next week, but give it a couple of decades and it will show. Science is a form of apprenticeship where how you do research is almost as important as the research itself. So, if boss-from-hell material has a selective advantage, and these people will become the PIs of the future, the scientists growing out of their lab, might in return nourish and nurture a similar attitude further down the road.
Clearly, balancing the importance of research and non-research activities in the evaluation of a fellowship application is difficult. But it would be a good first step to at least include non-research activities in the application forms. Some fellowships, like Marie Curie, are already on the right track. I hope others will follow suit, too.