As researchers you have likely learnt,
relearnt, unlearnt, and subsequently performed many tasks, experiments, and
activities. Yet, have you ever stopped to ask why? Or to question if you are
the most appropriate person to undertake that particular task?
There is no doubt for academics, the tasks needed to be a successful researcher are within your current skill set. Or if not within you current skill set, you are capable of learning the new skill. However, just because you can does not mean you should. For example, you may have a website, but should you be the one maintaining it? Or are you better of developing the content, and have another person design the site and deploy the site. You might be inclined to make a foray into social media. Should you just dive in? Or should you learn a little first. On the one hand, you could learn as you go. On the other, taking a short course might make your account more effective. Or, would you be better off supporting another person in your research group take the lead on social media; with you focusing on the research?
Delegation is a key life skill and useful
for managers and leaders. As a researcher
are you doing enough delegation?
What about things closer to home as it were. Take, for example, writing a grant. Is that something you should do? Or should you involve others? And in what way? Should you get students to do the work?1 Or a professional writer? Could your time be better spent undertaking experimental work, rather than grant writing? What about writing journal articles? Could a professional science writer do a better job of writing the research than you? Would their work be more likely to be accepted for publication than you? Have you ever considered the impact of professional writing on your work? Could it improve how the research is received by your peers? What about writing for non-expert audiences? Is that something others could do or should do to allow you do focus on what you do best? What about presentations? Could you enlist the support of a professional speaker to improve your presentations? Or should you identify the best speaker from within your group and ensure they are front and centre at critical times? Not everyone is great at speaking in public – to specialised or non-specialised audiences. Yet, as someone who works with a range of research groups, I rarely see decisions made that attempt to make use of the best speaker, the best writer or the best social media person. Instead we all try to do everything (or nothing).
Stepping into the lab or field; how do you determine who does what? Does everyone take care of their own patch? Or do you divide tasks up based on who is best at what? Are the best interviewers taking on that role? Are the experts at survey design and development doing that? Do you order premade reagents and consumables, or do you make them all from scratch? Do you wash everything yourself, or do you have a washing service? Have you considered the real cost of doing things from scratch (e.g. time, effort, delay) or just the monetary cost? Or do you recruit PhD students so they can take care of these menial tasks?2
Of course, staff and students need to grow their skill set. But we also know that improvements in productivity come through specialisation (the various industrial revolutions are evidence). In many cases this specialisation has not transitioned into scientific research or academic work practices.3
Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.
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1I’d say that students should NOT be the labour force of the lab, they should be involved in order that they learn, not in order that the senior researchers, and academics don’t do menial tasks.
3Yes, I am aware of research platforms, platform technologies and similar. Not to mention research and grants offices. However these are often large scale. Further, their contribution is rarely acknowledged by academics in academic relevant ways, such as authorship.