I was once told that the greatest thing about running your own lab is that you don’t have a boss. No one tells you what to do. You can choose your own direction. You can set your own pace. You can explore and define your own priorities, and follow your own path.

All this is true but sometimes, especially at first, it’s a bit like being an orphan.

Because good bosses, like good parents, do a lot more than boss their staff around. They provide support, set direction, and recognise achievement. It is often easier to please a fair boss than it is to get a paper into Nature or to secure a grant or a fellowship.

Not having a boss can be challenging. To please a good boss, you just have to get the work done on time to an expected standard. In contrast, impressing the whole world, or meeting the standards you set yourself, can be very much harder.

Of course, there’s another problem too. Not related to recognition but to resourcing. Good bosses provide the required resources. They may stipulate how these resources are to be used, but good bosses are breadwinners. Lab heads are bosses, without bosses, they are forever thinking about where their next meal, or rather their next grant, is coming from, and as their lab grows their responsibilities increase.

Ultimately, some lab heads who do not have a boss, regard the grant agencies or the editors of top journals as their bosses. Such organisations can function like bosses but cannot express any human kindness or offer moral support, or even understanding. Grant and Fellowship Committees don’t say “you’re doing great, sorry, I’m sure you’ll succeed next time”. The computer just says no, and then leaves it at that.

Many people outside the research world believe that lab heads still do have bosses and that line management structures ensure that everyone has a boss. In one sense that’s true but it seldom feels that way. Who pays the piper calls the tune. Since most research funding now comes from external sources, there will be many researchers who are well-informed about everyone on the grant committees and their priorities, but are ignorant of the name of their dean or vice-chancellor.

Fortunately, the journey to not having a boss is a gradual one, so there is plenty of time to get used to it.

I do remember having good bosses, or supervisors, when I was an honours student, a doctoral student and a post-doctoral fellow. I’ve also worked for bosses in various other roles in the sector. I’ve been fortunate in that I was mostly able to choose my supervisors and I sought a lot of advice to ensure that I didn’t make a mistake. Then when I’ve been employed in other roles my bosses chose me and that in itself is the perfect foundation for success – as both parties want things to work. If you have a good boss, you can figure out how to work well and support one another, in a mutually enforcing relationship.

Although scientists don’t have bosses, they are never completely on their own. I have a network of colleagues, locally and across Australia, who are in my sub-discipline and they are very important to me. This critical mass is vital in an intellectual sense, in terms of building up synergistic expertise and securing equipment, and also in terms of intellectual confidence and visibility.

Additional support also comes from colleagues overseas, former fellow postdocs and students and others with whom I came to collaborate over the years. This group of people is very important to me but it’s an unusual relationship in that I see most of them for about a week or so every two or three years – this is actually ideal for maintaining strong friendships free of any tension.

If you are highly self-motivated then leading a lab is good. But there is one final consequence of this self-motivation. University managers and even politicians will often find it hard to push lab heads in their desired directions. Lab heads are like shopping trolleys, good at collecting data, but they don’t always go where you push them.

Merlin Crossley is DVC Academic at UNSW. 

His Crossley Lab appears in CMM Fridays.



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