I have been a postdoctoral fellow for approaching seven years. Over the past few years, I have been instinctively drawn to expand my horizons by joining various associations. I enjoyed leading the Postdoctoral Association (PDA) at my institution; being a member of the Board of Directors and also participating in the Outreach Committee for the National Postdoctoral Association; and being a member of my local Association for Women in Science chapter.
The skills I have enhanced by my involvement in these organizations will hopefully be useful in my daily life and my future career. I was recently asked to become the associate program director for a training program within my institution. After some initial hesitation due to my relative inexperience with American training programs and official administration practices, I accepted the honor. I now technically spend one day each week in this new administrative role while the remaining time is dedicated to my postdoctoral research. It has been a wonderful learning opportunity, and I feel very fortunate to have been chosen.
One of my first tasks was to request written reports from both the scholars and their mentors. This seemingly innocuous task was one of the hardest I have done. The scholars responded very quickly. However, some mentors ignored a series of deadlines I imposed to encourage their quick submission. I cannot relay just how frustrating this was. I certainly understood how busy each person was, some being M.D.’s who see patients, run departments and research groups. However, the failure to respond was not necessarily related to the individuals institutional responsibilities. It was my first taste of what administrators experience frequently.
I have often heard scientists complain about the rules and documents imposed on them by “The Administration” and,before I took this role, I assumed that a lot of them were indeed superfluous. However, now I was looking from the other direction. These documents were key evidence to show how well the training program was progressing and would also hopefully determine where improvements could be made. These were certainly not superfluous documents designed to irritate the individuals or waste their valuable time.
For this role, I also began to meet new individuals I would not have met if I had remained at the bench. Each new development meant I interacted with someone new; secretaries, personal assistants, departmental chairs and high ranking administrators. If I had been asked to do this before joining my various associations, this might have been daunting. However, my networking experience paid dividends and allowed my inclusion into these new cliques with relative ease. I learned from watching those more experienced than myself; both in administrative processes and how/when to speak up in large conference style meetings. During my first few meetings, I did slip up and make rookie mistakes. Howeverm I was given support by those around me. With their encouragement, I persisted and certain things became second nature.
The one thing I noticed about most administrators is that they appear calm and collected. As one mentioned to me – look relaxed like a swan on water as no one will know how furiously your legs are going underneath. I think this may be where most scientists disconnect from the administration – just because they seem calm doesn’t mean they don’t feel stresses and anxiety.
Having now experienced both sides, I can say I have huge respect for administrators everywhere who achieve their goals, often in spite of the “assistance” given by the scientists. I now understand that they back up the scientists in ways you can’t envision unless you have walked in their shoes. They are not the gremlins sent to be the bane of our existence and waste time better spent on other, more scientific, activities.
The administrative team I joined had a large goal in mind, and when we achieved it I can honestly say I did feel uplifted and successful. It was different from seeing a paper published, and most individuals at my institution will never know my part in it, but I do. I have certainly grown as an individual from this experience and look forward to the new experiences to come. It is important to constantly challenge ourselves by learning new things. After all, isn’t that why we became scientists in the first place?