Administrating Science

Moving up in academia? How to take on administrative roles while still running a successful and productive lab.


When Susan Henry was a young professor of genetics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine she found herself acting as a liaison between graduate students and faculty; she says she just had a “knack” for that kind of work. Henry’s first administrative position was the director of PhD students at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Acting in this position Henry says she accomplished things that she never could have as a PI “just sitting on committees.”

Henry says that research and administration “are two separate activities with different skill sets.” But the skill sets are often complementary. In fact, her investment in developing administrative skills has paid dividends to her scientific career. When looking for her next research position, Henry was able to expand her search beyond...

It didn’t take long for Henry to learn that there is a “delicate balance” between the responsibilities of a dean and those of a researcher. Moving from Carnegie Mellon to Cornell University provided further research possibilities, and after nearly 30 years since her first administrative duties began, Henry will be stepping down from her role as dean to take the position of a full-time researcher and professor in the department of cellular and molecular biology at Cornell.

Here are tips for finding success in administrative duties while keeping a thriving laboratory.


Hire people more gifted than you

One reason Arthur Popper’s laboratory at the University of Maryland remained successful when he became dean of the College of Life and Chemical Sciences is that he has “good postdocs to run the place.” Popper said he’s had more papers published while actively administrating than when he was a faculty researcher. Popper tests out his graduate students and postdocs by letting them “get their feet wet” in some of the more managerial aspects of running a lab. The process is informal, he says, and over time he’s able to determine who is the best fit for which task.

Get a Blackberry or iPhone

Popper says that for most scientists, “figuring out how to do [administrative work] can be extremely difficult,” especially managing all of the new demands on your time. With more time spent in a departmental office, an administrator may not be aware of the day-to-day problems and successes of the lab. To counter his lack of face time, Popper “constantly checks email.” He makes sure that the concerns of his laboratory members are his “highest priority.”

Research and administration are two separate, but often complimentary skill sets. —Susan Henry

Schedule the science time

Henry learned the need for a strict schedule as a young researcher when she had to balance family time with lab obligations. At first, many activities and university events sneak into one’s schedule, and by the end of the week, an administrator may have overlooked his or her own research. To avoid this, Henry sets aside time every week for her own research interests, including taking Fridays as half-days in her administrative office. She also sets aside time to talk to her collaborators for at least an hour every 2 weeks. By keeping a strict schedule, university duties and personal duties don’t cause conflict.

Run lab meetings like business meetings

Stephen Sugrue, senior associate dean for research affairs at University of Florida College of Medicine, used to relax and take time to socialize during his lab meetings, but now with his added responsibilities, he makes sure that once he’s in the door, the meeting is off and running. He uses agendas and sets specific goals for meetings, to ensure they are run efficiently.

Show your face, even if on weekends

Sugrue says that he misses just hanging out in the lab. “By the time I arrive, we have to attend to business,” he says. To counteract this loss of face time, he tries to give his lab some of his personal time by holding lab meetings on Saturdays or Sundays, when he can relax with his students and fellows that can attend.


Find mentors

“Any scientist who starts as a teacher has not been trained” to manage a department, says Popper. Figuring out the job can be extremely tough, and there is a steep learning curve. Popper found he got the best advice and guidance from experienced chairs in other subject areas including sociology, psychology, and engineering. By looking outside of the department, he was getting advice from mentors who were not “at direct competition for resources with him,” he says.

Keep the big picture in sight

Popper says that as an administrator, you exist to benefit other people’s research interests, not just your own. As chair at University of Maryland, his goal “was to improve the department.” Ultimately, promoting the science of your department helps ensure the quality of your own research.

Identify people for their talents

Popper says that observing others and determining what they are good at will help you in your double role. Can someone help you organize a meeting, read proposals, or deal with unruly students? Popper says one of the first things he did when he came to University of Maryland was to find the phone numbers for people that he knew could aid him in his job, from ombudsman to the deans of different schools. Popper made a point to introduce himself to each one of these people, some of whom he now counts as good friends, so that when the time arose for such a need, they were only a phone call away.

Prepare for the sacrifices

On paper, Henry spends 80 percent of her time in the office and 20 percent in the lab, but in reality, her workweek is more like “10- to 12-hour days and many weekends, both during the academic year and summers.” Therefore, something’s got to give. In Sugrue’s case teaching “had to go” and is the “one thing he misses.” Henry, who also dropped her teaching load as a dean, says that she is excited to be back in the classroom for the end of her career. Having a family who understands that she may not be home as much as she would like was also a tremendous help, Henry says. “Whether you are a man or a woman, taking this job takes support from your family,” she adds.

Ask for deliverables

As a dean you are responsible for divvying up the resources, “including space, finances, and time,” says Sugrue. He insists that his colleagues prove their needs and the benefits of their projects to the university before he passes out resources. He expects cost–benefit analyses, which determine the likely benefits based on how much money is invested. Sugrue also asks for deliverables, something that is now a part of NIH grant applications. Getting projections on how long it will take to attain results, and what benchmarks will be met, helps Sugrue allot resources fairly.

Be seen

Sugrue has become much more social since he took on administrative duties. He considers it a requirement of the job. To fulfill it, Sugrue tries to attend two seminars a week. After the talks, he chats with other researchers to stay active in research and the activities of faculty, but also talks to people who wouldn’t normally make formal appointments to see him. Sugrue says that if you “aren’t out there, it’s a barrier.” Like Sugrue, Popper tries to see various faculty by walking the halls, “just to schmooze a bit.” By being present, he hopes to hear about successes and problems, and put out the fires before they take down the house. By walking the halls, he hears about day-to-day interactions, and gets a sense of what’s going on in the department. Whether it’s between faculty or students and faculty, it’s important to listen to all sides and not enter the situation with prejudices.

Don’t baby a project

While Sugrue is often one of the architects and decision makers of research ventures such as new buildings, he also knows when to let go. When he first started out as an administrator he saw each one of the projects he helped to design as “his babies.” Over time, Sugrue learned that if he was not a direct contributor to the research, he needed to step aside, and let the right people continue to work on the project. Sugrue says that he remained involved, but learned not to micro-manage details of projects after they had gone across his desk.

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