Pratchett on becoming a manager: this too for scientists

By Grant Jacobs 09/02/2014

I frequently hear or read of senior scientists bemoaning that they no longer do science, but manage. That in becoming a PI (principle investigator) working life has become dominated by paperwork, coordinating things and meetings.

Pratchett puts moving up career ladder to management responsibilities so eloquently in Night Watch (2002, hardback, p24) through the mind of Vimes former copper, now Commander of the Watch, reminiscing:

Where did I go wrong? thought Vimes as the litany went on. I was a copper once. A real copper. I chased people. I was a hunter. It was what I did best. I knew where I was anywhere in the city by the feel of my boots. And now look at me! A duke! Commander of the Watch! A political animal!  I have to know who is fighting who a thousand miles away, just in case that’s going to mean riots here!

When did I last go on patrol? Last week? Last month? And it’s never a proper point patrol, ’cos the sergeants make damn sure everyone knows I’ve left the building and every damn constable reeks of armor polish and has a shave by the time I get there, even if I nip down the back streets (and that thought, at least, was freighted with a little pride, because it showed he didn’t employ stupid sergeants). I never stand all night in the rain, or fight for my life rolling in the gutter with some thug, and I never move above a walk. That’s all been taken away. And for what?

Comfort, power, money and a wonderful wife…


…which was a good thing, of course, but … even so …

Damn. But I’m not a copper anymore, I’m a, a manager. I have to talk to the damn committee as if they’re children. I go to receptions and wear stupid toy armor. It’s all politics and paperwork. It’s all got too big.

What happened to the days when it was all so simple?

Faded like the lilac, he thought.

You could re-write that for a scientist so easily. (And many other careers too.)

In scientific research, students and post-docs are very much hands-on workers; group leaders much less often so.

Most group leaders have their time full running their laboratory, guiding the research, writing the grants, attending the institute’s meetings, peer-reviewing others’ grants, papers and job applications, doing teaching and all that goes with that. And so on.

Scientists don’t quite get “Comfort, power, money” – at least not a whole lot of these. Power of sorts in their own tiny sphere, perhaps. A modest income, provided you can keep the grants coming in. Comfort is whatever you make it I suspect.

In general there less for remaining hands-on, at least within the academic system.

This hasn’t always been the case. As one example Frederick Sanger, who died last year, pioneered techniques that led to the modern biotechnology and genomics industries we have today. Obits for him in the science community* mention his hands-on approach, like this at Curious Waveform, a Scientific American blog –

Sanger’s lack of recognition [by the general public] is a ringing criticism of both the public’s adulation of people who talk more as well as the relative neglect of experimentalists who are adept at building things with their hands.

My views might be expressed in a more tempered way, but it’s a fair point – but not only is there a lack of public recognition but in general the academic system, at least within universities, doesn’t offer much career advancement for those who might serve better through remaining hands-on. The whole structure of funding systems, assessment and promotion is geared towards those who run ever-larger groups as they progress. I’m not slamming this, just noting how the beast is shaped.

Feel free to ruminate or share your thoughts in the comments below.


While researching my article on Sanger, I learnt that the Curies didn’t get their first research assistant until after their first Nobel prize.

Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I should add I’m comfortable with the idea of running a group or team but we shouldn’t think of everything and everyone that way.

* There were few in mainstream media – very disappointing considering the huge impact his work had. Think, for example, of the human genome and all that went with that and has followed that, including the many other species tackled and more focused studies on specific genes.

Other articles on Code for life:

Sea stars and mosaics

Career paths, redux – the academic research career is the exception

The roots of bioinformatics

What does a chromosome look like? (Not Just DNA #2)

Forgetting older science

Coiling bacterial DNA

0 Responses to “Pratchett on becoming a manager: this too for scientists”

  • Night Watch – one of my favourite Discworld novels. Pratchett is a very astute observer of both people & societies.