Management for Scientists: What Makes a Good Manager Anyway?

By Joanne Kamens

 This is the first in a 5 part series on Management for scientists

The 8 types of managers

“I'm slowly becoming a convert to the principle that you can't motivate people to do things, you can only demotivate them. The primary job of the manager is not to empower but to remove obstacles.” – Scott Adams, Dilbert cartoonist

What makes a good manager?

If that is all it takes, then how come there are so many bad managers? New managers are rarely chosen because they have demonstrated skill at managing and this is especially true in science. It is assumed that if you are good at science and you are smart, you can be a good manager. The kind of smarts and the type of skills that it takes to be a good scientist are not the same ones it takes to be a competent manager (much less a really good one). While getting your PhD or doing a postdoc few science trainees will have opportunities to work on Emotional Intelligence or to hone delegation skills, for example.

So aside from a focus on removing obstacles, what makes a good manager? First, it takes an open mind to be willing to learn and grow in skills. Managing a team is hard and most people have some learning they need to do before they can be good at it. Like any other skill, it can be developed with education and practice. Second, it takes a focus on the goal. Let's assume that the goal is to work with a team to get a lot of stuff done. 

Factors contributing to job satisfaction

Being a good manager is not the same as not being a bad manager (see cartoon above – what type of bad manager have you had?). You can avoid some of these common pitfalls of management and still not get the most from your team. It is pretty clear that if people are mostly happy at work, they will work harder and contribute more. Assuming basic needs are being met (i.e. enough pay and benefits to live on), the factors that contribute to job satisfaction are a bit surprising. There is a lot of research in this area and studies overwhelmingly agree that these are the factors that most contribute to job satisfaction:

A feeling of being appreciated and valued

This often stems from being included in organizational decision-making. It is imperative that employees are thanked for their work by the words and actions of their managers. You can’t just think it, you have to tell them. A good manager learns that her success and recognition come from the successes of the team.

A strong sense of engagement in the work

Behind-the-scenes support from their bosses and employers. Availability of superiors for consultation, advice and brainstorming. Employees must understand the part they play in the goals of the organization and feel the importance of their contributions.

Flexible work schedule

Flexibility to manage their personal lives to achieve a healthy work-life balance. It is harder to manage when the measure of work is not just time spent at the desk, but it is worth it. This requires a focus on deliverables. It does not mean a manager must allow his team to work mostly at home.

Having a high degree of freedom and diversity built into their jobs

Chance to do/learn new things, diversity of responsibilities, which might include training or teaching others, research, and policy development. Every worker at every level does better with some variety in their job.

Good relationships with clients and colleagues

Sometimes this means you have to fire a good performer if they are enough of a jerk to make the rest of the team miserable.


A good manager keeps these factors in mind at all times when making decisions, assignments and polices. Sometimes the boss has to be the boss and make difficult and “unpopular” decisions, but that should not be the common mode of operating. 

Managing scientists

I should add a few special words about managing scientists because, let’s face it, we are special. Below are some special characteristics of scientists in the work place as described by Sebastiano Massaro in his Nature Biotechnology article “Managing knowledge-intensive workers”. I have added a few comments of my own to this list.

  • Need feedback on their work but prefer to be approached as peers rather than subordinates

  • Need mental space and dislike intrusions (this actually varies, a manager does best to identify the work style of each team member)

  • Need challenging work, opportunities to pursue and problems to solve (I think this is true of most people, not just scientists)

  • Are self-directed, but need precise leadership and support from their superiors (beware of not micromanaging the scientist if you want their best work)

  • Are continuous learners and have individual priorities for advancement in science

  • Have their own working schedules and may not necessarily be comfortable with imposed deadlines (there’s that need for flexibility, sometimes taken to an extreme by scientists)

  • Are highly mobile and can move to a new workplace if opportunities for learning and personal growth do not exist or if they feel underutilized in their present positions
carrot and stick

By removing the primary obstacle of job dissatisfaction, the work can get done, and get done well. The rest of the blogs in this series will address more specific tactics managers can utilize to be in touch with the needs of the team and to be most effective in their role. The best managers have learned to get results with the carrot, and not the stick.



This is the first in a 5 part series on Introduction to Managing People for Scientists. Subscribe to the Addgene Blog to follow the entire series as it is published.

Good introductory reference books on managing people:

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Topics: Science Careers, Management for Scientists

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