On managing people: a rookie’s perspective

Managing people

My new job never ceases to challenge me.  I’ve talked about it before, wondering how long it would take for things to calm down after a tumultuous transition from grad student to postdoc.  But you know what?  I’ve come to the conclusion that things are not going to calm down.  Stress, anxiety, and exhaustion are my new normal.  I know I’m not alone in dealing with work-related stress, and in the grand scheme of things am doing pretty well in life, but man, this is tough!

I think it’s safe to say that the work I’ve been doing lately is, hands down, the most challenging work I’ve ever done in my life.

The latest challenge?  Managing.  At 36 years old, this is the first time I’ve been responsible for a bunch of people on a daily basis.  This summer I have five students working for me full time, a combination of undergraduates and high school students.  Thankfully all the students are wonderful, very bright and motivated, and really a pleasure to work with.  The challenging part is keeping everyone moving forward simultaneously.

On any given day, I’m trying to do all of the following:

  • Make sure all five students have enough work to keep them busy for 40 hours a week.  I’m always trying to identify the next steps on everyone’s projects and set up the appropriate infrastructure so that things are ready when the students get there.  This often involves research/reading to develop and type up protocols for the students to execute.  Grad students can do their own research, but undergrads need a little more guidance.
  • Make sure everyone has the lab supplies that they need.  This is a step I’d absolutely love to delegate, but no one else knows exactly which of the dozens of types of filter membranes is the right one for a particular application.  I have to scour the web and pick the stuff out myself.
  • Be available to answer an endless stream of questions.  I’m trying to teach the students how to troubleshoot their own problems, but this is a skill that takes time to develop.  Plus, since I’m the one who’s going to be using all their data, I want to provide some level of oversight myself so things get done properly.
  • Make sure the students understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.  There is some level of education that needs to happen during these summer programs, not just cranking out work in the lab.  I’m trying to be a good mentor and actually teach them some science!
  • Get my own data analysis and writing done.
  • Get my PhD research published.

Those last two have so NOT been happening, ha!  The only things I ever get done are things that are due immediately, like answering questions and dealing with things that inevitably go wrong.

Sometimes there are moments when I sit at my desk for five minutes, have a cup of coffee, and marvel at the fact that five people are simultaneously working on my project and generating data that I can use in my next paper.  Those moments are pretty awesome.

Sometimes there are moments when I realize that I’ve had to go to the bathroom for the last three hours and haven’t stopped running around like a crazy woman for the five minutes it would take to take care it.  This happens on a daily basis.

I’m pretty sure that when it comes to managing people, I’m probably doing a lot of stuff wrong.  I’m figuring things out as I go and just trying to keep my head above water.  I think I need to start reading management books and learning how to do things properly.  Maybe this gets easier over time.  Maybe it doesn’t!  Maybe all my students hate me.  Maybe they think I’m not so bad.  Maybe, once in a while, they think I’ve got my shit together.  Maybe.  🙂

All I know is that I’m trying.  I go to work everyday, run around like a maniac, have endless meetings with the students, and make endless to-do lists that I tackle when they’ve all left for the day.  I leave home early and get home late.  I work during breakfast, make plans in the shower, review students’ work on my commute, and take care of emails before bed.  I dream about work every night.

There is no question that my job has taken over my life.

BUT.  Sometimes a student will run into my office with a graph that they made after weeks of tedious work, and we will marvel at it together and talk about science.

And then, all our hard work becomes TOTALLY WORTH IT.  🙂

Any tips for managing a team of people without completely losing your sanity?  This rookie is all ears.

16 thoughts on “On managing people: a rookie’s perspective

  1. Who’s your mentor? She (preferably) should be able to give you some advice suited to your specifics. I can try to be general, but know you’re probably already doing all these things! 😉
    Don’t be afraid to tell your students the truth: you’re human, just like they are! Let them know you care about them as people, and not just for their work. “Forget” to give them their next to-do, and try gently forcing them to think ahead. What would they want/need to know next? How could they find that out? At some point, and it may be different for each student, give them a task and let them know that’s all you’re giving them; i.e., they have to decide what and how to get things accomplished within the parameters of the specific end results you want. (Hope that makes sense!) And then just watch, and leave them alone to do it. Or not, as the case may be. A different kind of lesson, but one they need to learn, no? To encourage teamwork, if possible, set a general goal but assign specific parts to each person, then leave the group alone to decide how they can/will interact to get their results, who’s better at 1 thing than another, whose work will depend on someone else’s results, all of that. Another kind of lesson they will need to learn, no?
    As I said, this is generalizing, and might not work for your situation at all. If not, better luck with more comments. But please, do force yourself to relax for 5 minutes and get to the loo! We’re all rooting for you! xx 😘


    • Thanks for the very thoughtful advice! You hit on one of the biggest challenges I’ve been struggling with: how to “let go” a little bit while making sure they are doing things properly and on schedule. I think if I wasn’t crunched for time and wasn’t planning on using their data myself, I would feel more comfortable letting them explore a bit more, make more mistakes, and try out their own idea/experiments. For example, if they were doing their own independent study. Since they’re working directly on my project, I want to have input on every step! I’m sure I can maintain quality control while giving them more freedom, but I haven’t figured out how to do this yet…. at least, not on a tight schedule.

      Another challenge is their relative lack of experience, compared to me at least. I’ve noticed over the last few weeks that things I think are obvious are not necessarily obvious to them, which is perfectly fine and to be expected. However, if I don’t catch these things, they can go unnoticed for weeks and wind up wasting a lot of precious time.

      This has been quite a learning experience… but hopefully we all benefit in the end.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Start with a classic – the One Minute Manager. When you have time for a broader perspective, the appreciative inquiry model is amazing. Best luck!! (I hated being department chair and rotated out ASAP.)


    • Thanks for the recommendations! I’ve been introducing myself to management theory and am really fascinated by it. I think taking the time to read these books and think about how I can apply the theory to my specific work situation will make a huge difference in how I approach the students and in my personal quality of life. Right now I am just winging it, but people have already solved this problem!


  3. This! I keep waiting for things to calm down too but I am now 8 months from finishing my first postdoc and the pressure is on to publish. Still trying to get stuff published from my PhD too. I think it gets harder to sustain this kind of pace knowing there isn’t an end so I’m trying to be sensible and not work at 200% all the time so I don’t burn out. Advice welcome!
    With students, I think it gets easier and I am slightly more hands off than I used to be (but still keeping track of what they are doing). I think messing up sometimes (in a small way) and having to figure things out for yourself sometimes can more useful than dont do x, do y. For me, I remember the times I did something wrong and why it should be a certain way instead. That said I have a student starting shortly to do something I don’t have time for and we don’t have time for him to mess up too much so …!


    • Yes, exactly!!! The time crunch is a huge factor in how much direction I’ve been trying to give the students. I’m almost a year into my postdoc, and the pressure is on to publish a paper within the first year. I expect the students to be in “production mode” at all times, processing a certain number of samples per day after a well-defined (and short) training period. I’ve even chastised the students when I’ve caught them waiting around for things to heat up in the lab… they could be processing data instead!

      I totally agree that making mistakes is the best way to learn, as I’ve had that same experience. I do think the students are learning from their mistakes, it’s just a matter of how much time those mistakes are taking up… and eating into my production schedule.

      Good luck and hang in there!


  4. I’ve been managing for years now but only just got formal management training last year. What a difference it has made to my self esteem. I thought I was a really awful manager but this training helped me to identify the bits I was good at and the bits I needed to work on. The best bit is having admitted my faults to my team they became much more understanding of me when I struggled. I got training through a British organisation but I’m sure there will be similar in your neck of the woods. It was only 4 days out of the office but it was supplemented with lots of online tools and resources.


    • This is great, Lesley. Thanks for the advice. I’ve been looking into management training courses though my university, and for now I’ve picked up some introductory books to read during my train commute. You bring up a really important point about admitting your faults. In science, it’s critical to be honest when you don’t know something, otherwise you can get really lost, really quickly. I try to do this with my students all the time. Sometimes they know more about a subject than I do, which I think is great, and they think is surprising. I want to make sure they know that it’s ok to correct me if I’m wrong… because I’m wrong all the time!


  5. Sounds like a lot of excellent training for becoming a PI!!
    Question: Are you having them read through entire protocols, writing down all of their questions (or typing up for email) and then ask you? Or are they asking questions every step or so? Some things cannot be explained until it’s being done, but a lot of things can, and it knocks out a bunch of interruptions in a go!
    Also, you might do this already, but add the exact reagents, company, and if different cells/proteins need different filters, at the bottom of the protocol. I thought it was silly until I was leaving the lab and training others, and then joined a lab that didn’t do that. “Place filter” isn’t helpful unless somewhere has the sizing and pores. Having the company and item number makes all that research you’re doing on reagents less of a hassle the next time!

    Good luck!! Sounds like it’s going well!


  6. Not a scientist here, nor an advanced professional, but I have done some managing myself. I loved it!!! I loved teaching and training my team, and then setting them loose to use that teaching and training to learn how to think for themselves. I even loved the endless stream of questions (less so when they came on the weekend, but…). Work may never get less stressful, but managing others is a real gift: gthe gift of shaping and developing new people to your career field into valuable professionals as they progress up the ranks themselves.

    Also, someone above mentioned giving your team more space to use their brains — excellent tip! It will save you a lot of sanity in the long run, and also give you a great deal of pride as you watch them develop into really intelligent contributors to your research.


  7. Even though I’m not technically a manager of people, I manage programs/projects and have learned quite a bit in the past year. One thing that’s helped me a ton is using a personality system like MBTI or the enneagram to identify my own personality and get a better idea of those around me. People are really different – different strengths and tendencies. You might find, for instance, one of your 5 students is eager to learn about sourcing the lab equipment and all that entails (with your guidance), and another might be good at documenting process so you’re answering less repeated questions. I also think the fact that you’re interested in doing a good job managing is huge! People respond to someone who is putting in effort 🙂


  8. I do not work in a lab, but my husband runs a multi-million dollar lab with many people working under him. I would suggest that you set up a system where your high school students report to your undergrads and your undergrads report to your grad students. This way everyone has some oversight and the students who work under you get a chance to build their own management/mentoring skills.


  9. Brilliant suggestions from the others – all excellent ideas. The only thing I’d add is to do some time management for yourself. Block out periods of time to focus on your stuff and make sure your team know when that time is & what you’re working on. Making yourself unavailable (except for emergencies) will foster more independent problem solving in them.

    All the best, it sounds like it is less frightening and more exhilarating now, in comparison to your last work related post.


  10. Not science-based at all, but the time/people management book I’ve valued the most is Getting Things Done by David Allen. It’s a really helpful structure, but I’d also definitely agree with putting the onus on your students to develop their thinking and only come to you for confirmation or if they’re going beyond their abilities. Good luck!


  11. Well, my “management” experience has been extremely limited, but my husband’s has been extensive, so I’d echo what others have said – encourage the students to make decisions, to use their knowledge and enthusiasm. A good manager has confidence that her staff will get the job done. I think, just treat everyone as you’d like to be treated in their shoes – and I can’t imagine you’d have any difficulty with that one. 🙂 Good luck! (and don’t forget to skip off [or maybe just walk] to the ladies’ room when you need to)


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