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How to Create the Best Workplace

1. Build collegial relationships Scientists prize collegial relationships: More survey participants rated them as important than they rated any other feature in The Scientist's "Best Places" questionnaire. "The environment here is very collegial and supportive," says Ite A. Laird-Offringa, assistant professor at the University of Southern California. "And interdisciplinary research is stimulated in many ways ... [for example] through the mindset of the faculty, who seek each other out to work

October 20, 2003



1. Build collegial relationships

Scientists prize collegial relationships: More survey participants rated them as important than they rated any other feature in The Scientist's "Best Places" questionnaire. "The environment here is very collegial and supportive," says Ite A. Laird-Offringa, assistant professor at the University of Southern California. "And interdisciplinary research is stimulated in many ways ... [for example] through the mindset of the faculty, who seek each other out to work together."

World-class scientists are also considered important features of a work place, but few participants hold "healthy competition" in much esteem. Says Laird-Offringa: "Science is already very competitive. I certainly do not want to compete, in addition, with my own colleagues here at USC."

 

2. Provide appropriate tools and decent work spaces

Adequate core facilities also provide keys to scientists' hearts. "New administration (University President, Deans and Provosts) all have made an excellent commitment to basic research, and have backed this up with funding for both new lab space and renovations of old space across a wide range of departments," says Douglas Vetter, an assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine. Well-stocked, well-maintained libraries also attract votes from more than half the US participants, with building maintenance garnering only a slightly lower percentage of the vote.

 

3. Fill funding gaps to maintain research

Scientists want organizations to supply the basic research infrastructure that grants do not cover; many define this as an important service. Financing packages for new faculty members to help finance their first research projects also received rave reviews. Flexibility with funds helps, too. "My institution allows for small, long-term projects [renewable every three years] that are not directly linked to a formal project but financed on the side by internal funds," reports Helmut Maske, a researcher at CICESE/ Oceanografía Biológica in Baja California, Mexico. "The proposal is rather informal, and not rigorously reviewed ... the funds pay not only for research but also for office supplies."

 

4. Fair pay, fair negotiations

A boon for smaller institutions: High pay is not the top priority. Participants value fair, competitive pay and well-defined opportunities for merit pay. They also value organizations that negotiate salary fairly. But the working environment is more critical. "I am a National Science Foundation Career Award recipient and have been offered three times my salary to move elsewhere," says Guy A. Caldwell, a University of Alabama professor. "I have no intentions of leaving."

Still, pay issues, when not done well, do resonate with scientists. Below-average faculty salaries and the lack of guidelines in promotion-based salary increases has had a demoralizing effect," complains one US researcher. "Limited faculty salary incentive programs for those who acquire external funding and support [also affect morale]."

Too much focus on fairness can also be a problem. "My institution would argue that it is precisely because it negotiates pay fairly that rigorous criteria were used to validate my qualifications, but it has taken them nine months to get my salary right," mourns a scientist at an institution in Denmark. "So Admin 0, Research Department 9."

 

5. Provide security today and tomorrow

For those working in the United States, health benefits weigh heavily. "The retirement benefits here are fantastic," one survey participant says.

But one person's benefit is another's ho-hum. "Obviously, housing subsidies, day care, and availability of mentoring are not going to be important to senior faculty," says one participant. "But retirement programs and opportunities to continue to do research after retirement are probably of less importance to junior faculty." Because European, Canadian, and Israeli governments support a national health system, these benefits were not given equal value by non-US researchers. An extra perquisite: tuition assistance for researchers and their families.

 

6. Cultivate tomorrow's researchers

Freedom reigns at the best places to work, or at least many researchers would want it that way. They rank flexibility in balancing research, teaching, and mentoring first among all teaching questions. Mentoring is especially important to new faculty. "The mentoring of junior faculty in research, grant writing, politics, and general management is [also important]," says Anthony Yeung, a researcher at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. "Each needs two mentors--one from inside the department, one from outside."

Researchers also want resources for teaching and mentoring; a sizable number of participants outside the United States say these resources are important. "An institution should have a practice of recognizing excellence in teaching and research in publicly announced awards," says Brian Lynch, senior research professor, St. Xavier University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. "Ours has annual awards in each category."

 

7. Ensure academic freedom

US and European researchers diverge on tenure issues. Many US researchers say they want a fair system, but it does not top the list of priorities. To Marnie Halpern, an adjunct associate professor in Carnegie's embryology department, the promise of a lifetime appointment is irrelevant. "A maverick spirit and quest for excellence and originality are strongly pursued, admired, and encouraged," she says. "We don't have a tenure system."

Some European scientists suggest that a tenure-track system would be beneficial. "The Swedish universities do not have tenure-track; instead you have to look for a new position when the time runs out as assistant professor [after four to six years]," says Cecilia Hägerhäll, a research associate at Lund University in Sweden. "The practical consequences are that those assistant professors who start up new independent research without being associated with an established senior group have great difficulty to maintain their research group and flow of funding during the transition from one position to the next."

 

8. Hire effective managers

Researchers don't care much about the details, but they report that effective and supportive management does matter. European researchers emphasize the need for a fair policy on sabbaticals and visiting professorships. "The administration does a good job trying to obtain the latest major equipment used in research," says Joseph McCabe, a researcher at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Md. "By using long-term planning, they try and maintain a good working environment by (slowly) renovating the labs. The place is small enough so that you get to know support staff on a name basis, and I think this helps in efforts to make things run smoothly."

 

9. Take down the boundaries and let other organizations in

Participants want institutions to ensure that relationships with outside companies create no impediments to publishing, yet they don't see relationships with outside groups as particularly important.

 

10. Let scientists share the fruits of their research

Surveyed scientists did not highly rank their intellectual property (IP) rights. Only a small proportion say that it's important for an institution to clearly outline an IP policy, with an even smaller percentage concerned about organizations' technology transfer offices. Outside the United States, a slightly larger number give weight to the idea that institutions should encourage the development of products from scientific work. Across Europe, universities are trying to build their capacities for developing patents and turning discoveries into inventions. US scientists, many of them at universities with technology transfer offices, are slightly less concerned.

 

11. Make sure scientists have a system to turn to when trouble comes

It seems few researchers face problems with administration. Only a few say that a university advocacy system matters to them, and even fewer say that published procedures are important.

 

12. Keep track of the rules

Researchers have little to say about regulations, which reside at the bottom of the priority list for all survey participants.


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