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I’ve never technically worked for a university. Two postdocs in government research centres, a stint at an NGO, and now at a museum mean the structures, pressures, and opportunities I’ve had in my professional research career of the last decade have been different to those of my academic (university-based) colleagues. It’s a useful comparison because, at least research-wise, we share many of the same goals. And whereas my friends at universities have teaching & admin, I have curation & admin (or more often, admin and more admin).

One area where I think universities can take a lesson from non-academic research environments is in management. As a rule, researchers make terrible managers, and managers make terrible researchers (exceptions do apply, of course), but when I compare the management I do/receive with that of academic colleagues, it strikes me as an easy win for universities.

By management, I mean the formal reporting, oversight, and support system in place for workers. This includes graduate students. Everything from taking leave to annual reviews and career progression to setting work plans and hiring in academia (as I’ve experienced it) could take something from outside and be improved.



Here, I’m mainly talking about graduate student recruitment. Often, it’s up to just the supervisor to deal with recruitment, resulting in a veritable mishmash of processes. Of course, the university will have a formal application/admissions procedure, but the steps before there (or in some cases where students are allocated after admission) is a bit of a mess. A few things to think about:

  • are adverts written in a way that minimizes gender bias?
  • what essential (required) and desirable (optional) criteria are there for the role? Are these assessed by the application, CV, or interview?
  • who else is short-listing applicants for an interview?
  • who else is sitting on the interview panel?
  • what set questions are being asked of every candidate?
  • how are criteria being scored & evaluated?

Daily management

Academics are used to a pretty loose reign and that flexibility is one of the incentives. The same goes for grad school. But there should be expectations of a standard set number of hours worked per week on an agreed schedule (allowing flexibility where possible) that takes into account other university-related tasks, such as courses, TAing, and professional development. I often say that students/staff I manage should work 36-40 hours/week, but I don’t have strong feelings on when those hours occur. Equally, there’s an expectation that once that agreed schedule is in place, deviations should be agreed or at least communicated (e.g., days working from home).

The same applies to annual leave. Staff and students do (should!) get a certain number of days off as annual leave, which should be taken with the approval of the manager. My take has always been that it’s up to each individual to manage their own time, and I will approve leave so long as there is leave remaining. But the key thing is that everyone knows how much annual leave there is, and when it’s occurring (which is particularly important when folks work remotely, and it’s not possible to easily tell on a given day whether they were working or on leave).

Annual reviews & work plans

One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed is in how annual work plans are set, agreed, and evaluated. At the museum, I spent about 2-3 hours with each person I manage setting out their plan for the coming year (they put the first draft together themselves). We then go over it, look at how realistic is, what resources they might need, balance it with other commitments, and then monitor it about half-way through the year. At the RSPB, we allocated defined percentages of time for specific projects; we don’t do that at the museum in part because we had more externally-funded work at RSPB, and at the museum many projects run together and separating time isn’t terribly efficient or useful. The key, though, is that both the staff member and manager agree on the plan, and when progress isn’t being made, it’s reevaluated and actions put in place to allow the person to succeed.

At the end of the year, we again sit down and look over the work plan, see where the successes and challenges were, and use that to inform our plan for the year ahead. This can be easier for permanent staff, where HR structures are in place to support them, and their managers, when goals aren’t met. For short-term/contract staff and graduate students, this is harder because the length of the period of employment is set by external funding.

And the same principles apply when doing one’s OWN review/work plan. Many academics are left to their own devices, except for a short chat with a head of department once a year. A friend of mine at a university has less than half an hour a year with their nominal boss. This is woefully inadequate and results in a plethora of requests for activities throughout the year, often at short notice. Granted, it’s also trickier in universities where one can be beholden to several functional managers — one person assigns teaching roles, another has more interest in the research & admin side, and they don’t always (ever?) talk to each other when setting annual workloads.


Now, I’m not advocating for micromanagement (which seldom works, and takes a LOT of time), but I think the pendulum needs to swing back somewhat in university environments. Structures to support managers, both in their own work and in managing the work of others, just aren’t there and this causes a great deal of frustration, anger, and chaos. The flexibility, freedom, and independence is why many pursue careers in academia, but in many places (certainly not all, but most that I’ve encountered/heard of) there needs to be better and appropriate support.

Few in research get any training in effective management; heck, I’ve picked it up along the way. But a combination of being sensible, compassionate, and understanding combined with structures to support both my staff and I have resulted in, I like to think, most successes, and dealt with any bumps along the road in an appropriate way. There’s always room for improvement in any organization, granted, but I’ve found it to be one of the areas where academia lags behind non-academic science institutions significantly (for a variety of reasons).