How to manage departmental lab politics

August 11, 2014 - 7 minutes read

If you had a bad evaluationA young junior investigator, Xiaoming, just missed out on some choice internal training awards that she was well qualified for. She tends to shy away from the lab departmental meetings and to just focus on her own lab’s research projects. Martina, another peer investigators within the same department, is always at the top of list on a number of committees, from faculty recruitment committees to department equipment resource committees. This places a strain on her scientific band width, making her research publication slow and arduous.

These are extreme examples of researches whom I’ve worked with in the past who struggled to balance their research politics. “I hate politics.” How many times have you heard that? Most people (>60%) don’t like work place politics according to staffing firm, Robert Half Int’l.  In my experience, this is rather a greater truth in the scientific community where there tends to be a high number of social introverts. While we may admit that politics can be a tough environment, it’s at the core of our evolutionary social development.  It’s a way to ensure the strength of our social circles from outside threats. This means that it’s in our best interest to embrace it by managing it.

Politics are difficult to avoid and it’s difficult to manage. So I’m going to offer a few choice strategies that will help one to keep the political balance without sacrificing precious research time.

Volunteer to lead what you know. You’ll invariably be asked to lead some sort of a committee as a junior faculty. It’s pretty much a must. The choice of what committee is pretty much under your discretion. So volunteer for the committees before its asked of you. You’ll most likely choose something that you like and you’ll excel in. You’ll show initiative and your expertise will become unrivaled and valuable.

  1. Limit joint meetings.  At the beginning many investigators try to attend as many joint meetings as possible to help stimulate their own research interests and increase their network. However, this can easily get out of hand and when you attend multiple meetings, you’ll start missing them. That’s when people start to notice. This can question your commitment to the meeting agendas and to the collaborations.
  2. Follow up and finish collaborations.  Start what you finish. Follow up with others to ensure that they know you’ve done what you said you’d do. To assume that the other group is doing their part of the research can lead to dire miscommunications. Ask them where they are at in the collaboration process. What’s the updated time of completion? Ask them if there’s anything you can do to assist them. DO NOT take on anymore collaborations till your current calibrations are done. The successful completion of your collaborative projects are part of your political reputation. Let others know what are your current commitments and that you’ll get back to them once you’re done.
  3. Say no by suggesting alternatives.  Just saying no is a political no-no. I know there are some who’d disagree with me, but I found that outright no’s are detrimental to your political capital. Rejection in any form is hard, especially to those senior to you. So therefore, I suggest giving them alternative suggestions. Most of your collaborators/peers just want solutions to the current issue at hand. So give them a solution to their problem. What would you suggest they do? For example, what if a senior faculty member wants you to attend an external departmental meeting that will just take up more of your time? Say to them, “Sorry, I can’t attend those meetings  because of my time conflicts. However, I can send one of my postdocs who could fill in for me. Or, if you’d rather, maybe someone else can attend my current meeting and I’ll attend this one.  Will this help?” They’ll be focused on your suggestion and not on getting rejected. If they insist, then you should go. However, remind them of your current commitments and ask for their advise on how to handle it.
  4. Protect dedicated research time.  You are a scientist, NOT a politician. Your success ultimately depends on your scientific discoveries. So you need to establish a set research time frame that you will do bench work and ONLY scientific related work. Let’s say, you’ll work on your science related projects from 9am to 2pm, or from 2pm to 7pm. Then outside of those designated times can be filled with political meetings.

If you’ve followed the above prescriptions, then demanding your focused time should never be an issue. Others will recognize your commitment to the department/institute and they’ll advocate on your behalf. You’ll be building your own political clout.

What other kinds of politics do you encounter and find difficult to manage? Let us know.

If you’d like help managing your lab practice, please feel free to contact us. We’d love to help you get back to doing more science.

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