Tuesday, November 22, 2016

PhDs as a ticket for admin?

Vickie and I were discussing this topic on our western trip and it triggered a lot of memories about my experiences with the educational system.  I mentioned some of this in my guide to grad students, but this includes some new thoughts since I wrote that "book."

First off, the way the education system works (at least as I've observed it) at the doctoral level is that the the primary emphasis is on demonstrating one's ability to do meaningful original research in your chosen field.  Often, a student's dissertation research is their first example of original work (i.e., not dished up as a project by one's major professor).  If the topic is assigned by their advisor, then the student will graduate as a "cripple" - having not yet shown themselves they can do research without assistance from their advisor.  A key element is that the idea for the project must be entirely their own.  From where I've sat, I've seen a lot of cases where this important requirement is not met, leaving the graduate to have to learn how to do this on the job!  This can have a bad outcome for everyone.

OK, I don't want to belabor that point here, but it's important to understand that a dissertation is often the first chance a student gets to show what they can do entirely on their own (as it would be in many research jobs they might have).  Doctoral education emphasizes research over classroom learning - or it should!  Sadly, many new PhDs go out into the world unprepared for the reality of the workplace and so often "disappear" into other situations.  As I was completing my doctoral dissertation, I recognized the absence of any experiences during my academic program that would have helped me overcome the hurdle of being able to dream up projects that are both solvable and worth solving.  There are lots of worthwhile projects that are essentially unsolvable, and lots of solvable problems that aren't worth the effort.  I think this is a teachable skill, but virtually no one teaches it.  For someone dedicating a career to scientific research, it seems to me that a course or two that offered a chance to begin to develop experience at formulating research topics would have been helpful.  My advisor wisely gave me no personal advice on how to do this, so I was forced to learn it entirely on my own.  Which I did, fortunately.  As did most of his students.

Now, however, we come to the primary issue of this blog post:  in many places of professional employment, it's becoming common at high levels of administration to require that applicants have a doctoral degree.  My concern focuses on the value of a standard doctoral program with its emphasis on scientific research when employed in a high level of administration.  I believe most PhD programs do virtually nothing to prepare a student for an eventual administrative position.  Of course, there are some people with research backgrounds who seem "instinctively" able (i.e., untrained) to be great managers.  A lot of being a good administrator is tied to having excellent "people skills" in order to support the working-level researchers (who can be quite idiosyncratic!). There also are "business" skills associated with finding and allocating resources for a research team.  Teamwork skills (as both a leader and a follower) are very important, as are communication skills (both verbal and written).  It's important for every administrator to understand that s/he can't be a success if the staff worker-bees aren't successful at their research (or whatever).  Administration is not productive work on its own, but it can be a big factor for those who actually perform the productive work for the organization (e.g., scientific research).

All too often, I see people promoted from the ranks of working-level science into admin positions for which they are grotesquely unsuited.  This usually breeds discontent among the working scientists and can be disastrous for morale.  Often, the only way to rid the staff of such incompetent managers is to promote them (and they are already well beyond their level of incompetence).  In my case, I resisted the temptation to "climb the ladder" because it would have necessitated my having little or no time to do the research I love.  Why give up something I enjoy to do something for which I have virtually no training and no desire to do?  It made no sense to me, just as having a PhD be a qualification for an administrative position makes little sense.  The primary benefit to having a former researcher in charge of a team is that they should be able to relate to the workers - but all too often, researchers promoted from the ranks become terrible managers or, at least mediocre in their position because they lack the necessary skills.

If someone aims at becoming an administrator in a scientific or technical field, there should be courses and seminars at the doctoral level that offer them some content they'll clearly need in such a position.  If a doctoral program has no such supplementary material (i.e.  in addition to the research experiences), then that diploma should not be viewed as suitable to apply for an administrative position.  Alternatively, some intensive training program for a management position could be offered - provided it's not just a "feel good" exercise that everyone passes.

Although I never had any ambition to be a manager, I've seen for myself the havoc that a bad manager can wreak within a professional program.  I may not be qualified for, or interested in having a management position, but I think I can recognize both good and bad management.  In science, my experience is that good ones are relatively few and far between.  If you find a good one, stick with him/her!