Saturday, October 18, 2008

Project management in the non-profit research services sector

So what do you do if you think that experience in conducting formal interviews might be good for your future career development, and you also happen to write for an alternative science careers blog?

You interview people with cool alternative careers, that’s what you do! (And you start by practicing on your friends). I get good experience, you get to read about a variety of potential careers, and the interview subject gets a glass or two of wine and half an appetizer. Win-win-win.

For the first article in this series I interviewed “Mermaid”, a good friend, former colleague, and regular commenter on my personal blog, who wishes to remain pseudonymous. Mermaid works as a Project Manager for a grant-funded, non-profit service provider.

Biological research, in both the academic and industrial sectors, is becoming ever more dependent on specialist high-throughput techniques that are beyond the equipment budget and expertise of the average research lab or start-up company. There has therefore been a trend towards outsourcing these techniques to designated centres. So what's it like on the other side of that fence?

“My analogy is that it’s like ordering a pizza”, says Mermaid.

“The usual pattern is that potential collaborators contact one of our PIs, or come through the website, and they are looking to sequence whatever it is that they have. If I’m lucky they’ll say something like ‘I have this much RNA from this species’, and if I’m unlucky they’ll say ‘how much does sequencing cost?’. So it’s as if someone phones up and says ‘I want three medium pizzas with pepperoni, extra cheese and tomato’, then the next person says ‘I want to feed my friends, how much will that cost me?’”.

Mermaid’s job is to determine exactly how much the pizza will cost, and how long it will take to be delivered, and to go back and forth with the potential collaborator until both parties are happy.

The first step is to communicate with each researcher to determine exactly what they want to do. The research outsourced to the sequencing centre covers a wide variety of fields; from cancer research to wine grape genomics, from anti-mountain pine beetle programmes to crop research. This variety obviously appeals strongly to Mermaid, whose academic and industry background includes such diverse fields as marine biology, medical genetics, biochemistry and stem cell biology. “I like that it’s all different, and what I really like is talking to people, finding out what they do, talking to them about their research”. The consummate scientist, she ends the long list of projects she’s been involved in with the words “it’s all very cool”. But has she had the chance to go back to her marine biology roots, which she originally abandoned after taking on co-op projects that involved “picking up dead fish on salmon farms”? With a smile she says “I think there are some salmon projects, but I haven’t had to deal with them!”

Once Mermaid has a good grasp of what the researcher wants, she helps them to choose the most appropriate sequencing service. “The effort depends on how much they understand about the different technologies”, she explains. “If it’s someone we’ve worked with before it’ll be one email, if it’s someone who’s got no idea it could be twenty”. She then factors in variables such as the type and scope of the collaboration, the number and size of the collaborator’s samples, and the technology used, to generate a rough cost quotation. If the client is still interested, she delivers a formal quote and estimated turn-around time. There are often several rounds of back and forth until the collaborator is happy, at which point Mermaid passes the work order on to the centre’s other departments.

When she’s not triaging pizza orders, Mermaid is also starting to manage specific projects, such as a grant held by one of the centre’s PIs. “I’ll be the first point of contact for questions about budgets, timelines, things like that”, she says. “I’m the one that makes the information flow”. This role includes coordinating monthly meetings, and tracking the project’s budget. “So I might have to say ‘you’ve only got enough money for 15 samples, if you want to do 20 we’ll have to make cuts elsewhere’, things like that”.

Mermaid moved into her current job fairly recently, following six years working in industry. Her previous job was the same as mine, with overlapping but distinct “good, bad and ugly” lists. Like me she saw no clear way to progress any further within the company, and realized that it was time to look for something else.

Using her network to good effect, Mermaid set up an informal chat with a contact in the non-profit research sector. She went into the meeting with no specific goals. “I was exploring how my skills might match anything in biotech, I wasn’t specifically looking in that sector”, she remembers. “And I knew this person had contacts in a wide variety of places”. However, she left the meeting with the name and contact details of a senior project manager who was hiring at the time. “I asked to meet her for coffee, and again I was just information gathering, looking for the kind of training that might be needed, finding out more about the field”. Soon after this informal discussion, Mermaid was encouraged to apply for her current position.

The multiple formal job interviews, with different people and departments, focused not only on Mermaid’s background knowledge and skill set, but also on how she approaches problems. “They would ask things like ‘if this situation would arise, how would you deal with it?’”, she says. “Knowing full well that you would have no idea what the official approach would be. But how do you think, how do your thought processes work?”.

The interviewers clearly liked what they saw in Mermaid, who has already been promoted after only a few months in the job. But what skills, other than a varied research background, would someone have to demonstrate if they wanted to follow in her footsteps?

“You have to be organized, you have to be on top of the paperwork, it’s just crazy”, she says. “People are managing three or four PIs, and you also have to be a little bit sensitive to them”. “So you shouldn’t go into this if you’re a bitter grad student who hates all PIs?” I ask. “You shouldn’t go into this if you can’t just laugh”, says Mermaid with an appropriate twinkle in her eye.

There is one final important point for anyone wishing to move into project management. Mermaid tells me that since she started her job, several people have interviewed unsuccessfully for similar positions, in part because they said that they wanted to leave research. “A project manager does not leave research”, says Mermaid. “Your job is to ensure that the research stays within the scope of the grant and its budget. You’re not leaving research, you’re an integral part of it”.


I know Mermaid reads this blog from time to time, and will probably be very interested in the feedback on this post! So if you have any questions for her, please leave them in the comments.


The bean-mom said...


Putting that voice recorder to good use, I see, Cath =). Thank you! I look forward to more installments of this new series. And thank Mermaid, too.

It's amazing the variety of alternative careers out there.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

You're welcome!

Now I just need to recruit my next victim. Oh sorry, I mean subject.

Amanda said...

Wow... that sounds like an awesome job. That's another one to add to the career list!

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Amanda, if you're interested in learning more, email me and I can give you the website address for this institute (as long as you promise not to give the name on this site! It is not exactly hard to figure out, but better to hide from Google!)

chall said...

Thanks! This was so good to read.

Especially the lst two sentences "leave research and intergral"... I don't want to leave research. I just want to do something else than bench work every day and not become a PI. Use some other part of all my skills.

This was a good example on how I can go about doing this. Very well written and explained. And it gives hope.

I guess now I only have to find that one person I can meet up with for coffee and see where it gets me?!

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Thanks Chall, I'm glad it was helpful!