Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Cloud Asks, You Give Advice

I owe an Ask Cloud post on the basics of converting a C.V. to a resume. I was going to write that this week, but do not have the time to do it justice, and I want to do it justice, because from what I can tell, no one really helps academics write a decent resume for industry. Anyway, that is the only explanation I have for some of the awful resumes I see- I know these people are smart, so I assume no one is giving them the info they need to do a good job. I promise to try to post it next week.

Instead, I want to as you all for advice/opinions. I'm going to give you a real life decision I am trying to make and see what you think I should do. And then I'm going to go to bed and then disappear into an all day technical meeting tomorrow, about which I just tweeted:

And let you have at it in my comments section. I'll check in tomorrow night!

So here is my dilemma:

I have lots and lots of ideas about how to apply some of the project management techniques I have learned in software project management to lab work- particularly to research-y work, where people usually tell me that project management "won't work." I think a lab could take some of these techniques, experiment a bit to find the best way to use them in that particular environment, and get more productive, while the people worked fewer hours and were less stressed.

But I currently have no scope to explore these ideas at my job, and trust me- there will never be any scope for me to explore these ideas at my current job. That is fine, and not meant to disparage my job or my particular company, it is just a statement of how it is.

I've tried to put the ideas aside and just focus on refining my techniques for my current position, which involves developing scientific software.

But I can't. I want to tell the world about my ideas and see if they help or not. If they don't help, fine- but I really want to know that, and to think about why. What can I say? I'm a bit of a management geek. Anyway, I'm trying to decide how to get my ideas out there within the constraints in my situation, which are:
  1. No paying side gigs at my current job without executive committee approval. I am not kidding. I even have to get my children's books approved before I publish them, which amuses me so much that I may try to sneak something about drug discovery into a future story just to see what happens. I have an offer on the table to write about project management for another site, and I have been trying for months and months to get approval, and have not yet succeeded. I am beginning to think I may never succeed.
  2. However, my understanding of California law is that they can't really limit what I do on my own time for free, as long as I don't break any non-disclosure agreements I've signed. (Frankly, my understanding is that they are on shaky ground on #1, but I don't really want to find out in a court of law.)
  3. I make more than half of my family's income, and we cannot afford for me to just quit my job and pursue a new career in research project management. Anyway, there are almost no jobs in research project management in my area of scientific expertise- we don't tend to bring project management in until development phase.
Given that, my ideas are:
  1.  Try to line up a paying engagement as a consultant (in any capacity), then quit my job and pursue leads for consulting with scientists on project management. The downsides of this option are that my best leads for consultant work are people I know through my current job, and we are all skittish about me leaving my current job and going directly to one of them. Also, I am not at all convinced that any scientists would hire me to give them advice on project management- it has been close to 20 years since I was in a wet lab, and scientists tend to be convinced that only someone with recent experience in a field almost exactly identical to their own could possibly give them any ideas about how to run their research. I completely understand this impulse- a lot of people come in with no real understanding of how research works and make truly ridiculous pronouncements about "what scientists should do" and how are they to know I am any different?
  2. Start writing about my project management ideas here on Wandering Scientist. The downsides of this are that I don't currently associate my real name directly with this blog, and I'd like these ideas out there attached to my real name. Also, I don't want to stop writing about all of the other random things I write about, and I think that might dilute the project management message.
  3. Start writing about my project management ideas on a new blog. The downsides of this are that I think I could only manage to post once or twice per month, which might not be frequent enough to build an audience. Could I really keep THREE blogs going? I'm not sure, and I don't want to abandon this blog or Tungsten Hippo. Also, I'd need to come up with a new blog name and I suck at naming things. If I go with this option, I think I'd link to posts on New Blog here, much like I do with Tungsten Hippo. I don't mind having my name peripherally associated with this blog now, perhaps because I have stopped caring so much if the dudes in my industry decide I'm unhireable. This may not be the smartest thing, but it is true. I have no idea what I'd do about Twitter, though. I did snag a handle that would work for my real name way back before I even set up the @wandsci account. But I really don't think I want to try to run three twitter feeds, so maybe I'd acknowledge both blogs on @wandsci? Would I link to the @wandsci twitter feed from New Blog? I don't know. I find thinking through all the ramifications of this option a bit headache-inducing, really.
So, brilliant internet friends: what do you think I should do? Which option should I choose- or do you see another option I haven't listed here? Tell me what to do! I don't promise to take your advice, but I promise to read it all.


  1. Another option to add to the list: find a blog similar but not identical to what you want to write, and talk to them about doing a series on their blog. If its their professional field, you should be able to find some synchronicity, and maybe some new contacts.

  2. Anonymous5:43 AM

    In my opinion, the greatest problem with traditional management in academia is that you have very few options to either reward or turn on the screws on the people involved, and that you *always* work with untrained people. Graduate students work as much, when, and how they want -- unless you want to micromanage, fire them for not listening, or they are so terrified of you that they will tremblingly do what you ask but will not leave for another group. You can't really reduce their salary (not without affecting their ability to get insurance or tuition remission or pay the rent), you can't actually motivate them unless they really are motivated. You could try shouting daily, but you can't really get them to surf web daily or generally procrastinate, they may in fact be part of the necessary process -- many a program manager from DOD agencies has found out that throwing lots of money at academic research groups so they'd do things fast doesn't work, because you just can't get students to do stuff faster than they can. If we were talking labs full of professional scientists, I'd be with you all the way. But with students, even postdocs... They are paid so little that you either fire them or are basically at their mercy in terms of how fast/slow the projects move.

    1. Two things: (1) I'm not necessarily targeting academia- I was thinking about biotech, too. (2) I wouldn't use any of the techniques you mention to motivate my team members in industry. Their is quite solid research that money is not actually a good motivator long term, and yelling/fear techniques are actually demotivators. I generally start from the assumption that people want to do a good job and if there are problems look at what impediments might be preventing them from doing their best.

      Also- I have hired two people who were almost completely novices in our field. It is hard to find people with the combination of science and specific computer skills we need, so I do a lot of training. This isn't the same as training someone "fresh"- i.e., in grad school, but I have also worked with people who are fresh out of college.

  3. #3.

    I don't see academic groups having money to pay for consulting-- the groups that do have extra money are going to be the ones who don't need your advice(!). The best you could hope for academia-wise would be the occasional speaking gig at new faculty orientations.

    Industry might have that kind of need and money, particularly start-ups. After you have a solid blog presence it may be easier to find people to hire you if you jump ship from your current job. You would have to cut back on your hobby blogs and treat it like a side-business. You might also want to just go by your first initial rather than your first name, assuming you have a female first name. You could start by turning your book into posts (including heavy editing/rewriting) and posting them at regular intervals.

    And if you really do want more freedom, look into your budget and your housing situation and see if there are big cuts that you can make/are willing to make in exchange for more freedom.

  4. In CA, your employer can't control any unrelated work outside of the hours they pay you for. And, if you are a salaried employee, they don't really control what hours you do that unrelated work. That said, many companies require employees to file a form so that they can determine that it is not related to the work you do for them.

    It's more to cover there liability. They want something to show their lack of responsibility in case you get hurt or incur some liability on your sideline.

    BTW, I love, love, love your tweets. I used to work as a volleyball referee in college (played on a USVBA club team, and each club had to have at least 2 USVBA-certified refs to work the lines). When the frat guys hassled me on my calls, I whipped out the yellow card. I've only had to use the red card once. Then the guys heeded me.

    Wouldn't it be great to have yellow and red cards at work? I want them!

    I've been thinking about efficiency, too. I'm much more efficient in housework than my husband. It drives me crazy to see him plod willy nilly while I get 3x as much done.

    I wrote about planning in the kitchen and in analytical chemistry lab on my blog.

    1. Sadly, there was a red card offense, but the only person I could send off was myself. It was not a good day.

      I know that the policy is on shaky ground, but there are unusual features of my current company that make me hesitant to test the boundaries, and they put a policy in place forbidding moonlighting w/o prior approval.

      Anyway, due to the general badness of my day, this entire thing may become moot. I have a lot of thinking to do.

  5. As an academic, I can't help but think about and approach your problem from that mindset. To me, this sounds like a research question to tested, not a fully formed idea ready for consumption by practitioners. (I could be wrong about this -- you may have already had occasion to apply the ideas you're thinking about to the new environment you've articulated, but since you didn't mention that in the post, I'm going to assume you have not yet done this.)

    With this in mind, I wonder if another option to add to the list is to make this a collaborative project, wherein you use your network to reach out to someone who is a manager in the research lab environment, and work together to develop a model he or she can then apply in their setting. Then, together, you'd determine the best writing venue (with the greatest impact on the intended audience -- another knowledge area your collaboration partner would bring to the project) for sharing about the project from idea to test to outcomes.

    Taking this approach lends some more authority to the recommendations you plan to make, as they will be tested in this new unique environment and won't just be theoretical in nature. And, if gives you and your partner in collaboration the opportunity to also address those cultural concerns you identified in the post (i.e., scientists thinking a relative outsider can't have anything useful to offer to their work flows).

    To me, it's a win-win, but is a decidedly different approach to fleshing out and then sharing your ideas than this blog and Tungsten Hippo are. I find in my own work, the benefits of collaboration far outweigh the stresses.

  6. I have no opinion on future job directions that are worth anything, but I think you should totally put together a Biotech Meeting Bingo card for your next meeting.

  7. Off topic, but I think there are more offences you need for your yellow/red cards. The meeting I just went to needs a card for asking questions that are answered in the pre-reading pack, asking the same question of the presenter three times because you didn't like the answer the first two times, and calling a meeting in the first place because you can't be bothered finding the people who know the answers, so you call a meeting of six people in the hope that one of them knows the answer.

    I think I need a whole bingo set.

  8. Anonymous5:56 AM

    there are too many unknown variables to really provide feedback..... but i think that, if freedom is primary, you might be able to reduce expenses and get more freedom?

  9. I like the idea of a project management blog. When I was recently trying to find project management sources there weren't a whole lot of them out there. But a blog does take serious work, and if you are considering jumping from it to a new career then you really want it done well. I like another commenter's idea of collaborating with a research lab to document your ideas as working. Then you could get a totally awesome white paper out of it, or industry journal piece, and use that to get business for your new consulting company.
    Can you take an unpaid sabbatical at work? it sounds like you want some time to think about your career. It's hard to do that in day-to-day life. Even a month is a long time.

    1. I'm not sure I actually want to try to make this a new career- it would take a lot of self-confidence and willingness to take abuse, and maybe I've used all of that up on my current career path! I would love some time to really think through what I want to do. I am wondering if I need to break my rule about not blogging anything I wouldn't want my boss to read and just blog through my thoughts.

  10. Sorry one more slightly more useful comment. I moved about half my blog to a new site (with my real name attached) when professionally it became OK to have my name attached. It's not as good as building up an audience from the getgo, but it was great for me to have a professional blog with content already there once I was ready to go public.

    And now I've commented with both my blogs so you can see the difference if you're curious.

    The sad thing is that my old blog (which was more eclectic, like yours) has gone by the wayside now I maintain the professional one.

  11. Sarah (@SarahHCarl)1:33 AM

    Here are my thoughts as a PhD student - I don't know if they will be useful at all, but it's one other perspective. When I read that you had lots of ideas about how to apply project management techniques in a lab/research setting, I got really excited. I would love for someone to give me that sort of advice! Especially because I've been reading your blog for a while and I've already implemented a few tips myself, so I have confidence that it would be worth my time - but still, I think there are a lot of PhD students who would be open to learning about project management (at least in my department). In fact, they might be more open than their PIs - both because it could directly impact their quality of life and because those types of skills could certainly be useful in later career stages, whether in or out of academia (and I think we've accepted by now that most of us aren't going to end up as professors).

    In the UK, there are organizations like Vitae ( that run workshops and events for PhD students and postdocs, focusing on career development and effectiveness. There's also currently a big push for universities to offer transferable skills training to their students. Is there anything similar in your area? I wonder if you could collaborate with that sort of organization - whether to write a booklet, be a guest speaker at an event, actually go and work with researchers during a workshop, or even just to get ideas about what's possible. If I heard that you were coming to a workshop near me, I would definitely sign up :).

    I have no idea how any of that would fit in with your current company and its restrictions. It could be difficult - but maybe you could sell it as outreach/public service at first?

    Anyway, good luck, and I hope to read more of your ideas soon!

  12. I too have been excited about many of your project management ideas and transitioning from academia to industry perspectives. These are both so important because of increasing requirements for accountability in grants (e.g. data management plans), the increasing competitiveness in getting grants making the need for planning and organization more important and the decreasing number of faculty positions, so that students and post-docs really, really need to be prepared for and aware of as many options as possible coming out of their studies.

    I am however, not sure how to monetize this. I know our university does pay guest speakers for workshops. You can get money from a blog as I've seen from some of the parenting blogs, but that does seem to basically be full time (e.g. Happiest Home or Parent Hacks). You can write books, but that doesn't make much money.

    Maybe the thing to do is like you're suggesting. Get your feet wet and see where things go before leaving a current position. And maybe give yourself a chance to care a little less about your current job. Treat it as 'just a job' where they're really not treating you quite right, and you don't owe them your passion or devotion.

    You could start by guest posting on a couple of widely read blogs in informatics. (I can suggest some of it's not a space you're as familiar with). I also imagine that if you wrote on your own blog, people would retweet it, or maybe even link from their blogs. I do see a general need/interest/thirst for this type of information.

    Not liking your job sucks the life out of you though and does affect the way you interact with your family. People think 'it's just a job' why would you move across the country to get a different one or get in to an uncertain situation, but our jobs are our lives. We want to feel we're doing something worthwhile or at least enjoyable with our 40 hours a week and that when we inevitably end up thinking about those things that go on in those 40 hours, that they're not generally angst-filled. I'm guessing you are just not a person who can work in a dysfunctional work environment, because, basically, you feel the weight of the whole organization and want to fix it all. In that sense, really, you would be happiest being your own boss. In an academic environment you can do that by running your own lab. In industry, that's harder, and I think the reason many people stay in academics despite all the challenging things about it.

    Overall though, it sucks waking up and dreading the day ahead or thinking that you don't like your life when you know you actually have so much to be grateful for (family, friends, house, food, sun). I clearly don't have a good suggestion on how to change that, but know that it's not you not dealing with something in the right way. It basically just sucks, and something needs to change for it to get better (a new company, a new division in your current company, becoming an internet tycoon). There's not just some mindset switch that can be made and things will be different. If there was, you would have figured it out already, because you've been working really hard on this for a long time. You have good ideas and important things to say. And people should appreciate you for them.

  13. @Sarah, @TKT- thank you so much for the nice words. They mean a lot to me and I really appreciate you taking the time to write those comments. I truly wouldn't mind writing/talking about management "pro bono" as long as I can find/keep a job that allows that and pays me enough money to keep me in the lavish lifestyle to which I've become accustomed.... (Actually, I am willing to take a pay cut, but don't want to absorb too much of a pay cut. San Diego is expensive and I really, really like to travel.)

  14. I'd like to second what Sarah said--I got really excited when you wrote that you have lots of ideas about research project management. I would even pay money to read about some of your ideas, in a book or blog or whatever.

    I'd probably be willing to pay more than I would for some random project management book because I a) read and enjoy your blog and respect your perspective 2) am gainfully employed in industry right now.

    I would love to learn how to be more efficient at doing research. I'm fairly junior (~ 1 year out of grad school) and my job pays well but is pretty unstable, and any increase in research productivity on my part will translate into an increased sense of job security for me--or at least, an increased sense that I am doing as well as I can at controlling those factors I can control related to my job security.

    Depending on what your ideas are, is it possible that you could create some sort of software application to enable practicing scientists to try out some of your ideas? Like something analogous to those time tracking apps you have linked to?
    For some reason I feel like I would be more willing to spend money on an interactive app than on a book.

    The group I work in (industry physical science research, not biotech) uses some collaborative software, so that might be a potential market there too.


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