Quoth the Wikipedia:

"The Peter Principle is a proposition that states that the members of an organization where promotion is based on achievement, success, and merit will eventually be promoted beyond their level of ability. The principle is commonly phrased, 'Employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.'"

In academia, we have a tendency to promote brilliant and productive young researchers (e.g., grad students and postdocs) into positions with a large management component (i.e., assistant professors who must run a research group). God willing, I will get promoted. But during my PhD,

I was not trained as a manager!

The conventional wisdom is: it doesn't matter! No professor ever took management training, and, hey, everything "works out" in the end. The main problem I have with that statement are the quotes around "works out." I have seen friends suffer through horrible, painful, sad grad school experiences as a result of having advisors who are brilliant researchers and terrible managers. Likewise, the advisor suffers because she/he is investing time/energy/money in a student that doesn't produce anything. So my question is

Q: How do I avoid becoming a terrible manager?

In particular, what kinds of activities have you seen successful leaders of large-ish research groups engage in? Did they take training specifically targeted at managing groups? Read certain books? Talk about it a lot with senior colleagues? Make lots of posts on academia.stackexchange? Or did they really all just fly by the seat of their pants, and let natural selection take its course?


  • 1
    How did your senior faculty mentor answer this question? (You do have a senior faculty mentor, don't you?)
    – JeffE
    Dec 14, 2013 at 19:03
  • Sorry, I wasn't clear here: not a faculty member quite yet. Just trying to prepare for the imminent future!
    – Dnuorg Spu
    Dec 15, 2013 at 14:31
  • 3
    I don't want to put it as an answer, because it is probably not one, I still feel tne need to say it: Managers who came from management schools are easy to recognize, because they are unexperienced theoreticians who are keen on the theoretical crap more than on their own brain and logic. You can get some limited help in managing schools/courses/tutorials/books. But you'll never become a good manager from these. You have to go and start managing something, being it a local beer-drinking group, a programme for helping blind homeless people or a group of people at a department.
    – yo'
    Dec 15, 2013 at 21:56
  • 4
    Your PhD advisor is dodging the question. Shame on him. Find a better mentor.
    – JeffE
    Dec 16, 2013 at 2:45
  • 2
    You may be interested to read Uri Alon's How to Build a Motivated Research Group. Dec 16, 2013 at 12:23

6 Answers 6


Based on my experience with faculty, if you care about managing well, and don't want to be a bad manager, you are already doing better than many people. Again, in my experience, the worst offenders along these lines are those who think they are God's gift to their graduate students and postdocs, and cannot bear to hear any criticism.

So, if you want to do a good job managing:

  1. Keep caring about doing a good job and encourage constructive criticism/suggestions.

  2. In particular, talk to the people you are managing, and find out what they think. Lots of junior people are scared to even give constructive advice to their seniors, because they don't know if it will adversely affect them. It is obvious to say that you can often learn a great deal from the people around you, but people sometimes forget that this is very much true of the junior people you work with as well.

This is only tangentially relevant, but this blog post by Matt Zimmerman is quite good.

  • 8
    "if you care about managing well, and don't want to be a bad manager, you are already doing better than many people" I couldn't agree more. Dec 15, 2013 at 10:17

Short answer: Know when to turn down a promotion offer.

In the meantime, seek out mentorship opportunities, and learn what you can. Does your institution have a faculty development office? See what kinds of workshops they offer. Not all of that is about teaching techniques. If the faculty development office doesn't plan to offer any kind of training on managing a research group, request that they do so. Faculty development offices are often underutilized on campus, and if the people running that office are worth their salt, they will go out of their way to give you the assistance you are requesting.

  • 3
    management position ≠ promotion
    – JeffE
    Dec 16, 2013 at 2:46
  • 1
    @JeffE - That's an interesting take, but it's an assumption buried in the O.P.'s question ("In academia, we have a tendency to promote brilliant and productive young researchers into positions with a large management component...")
    – J.R.
    Dec 16, 2013 at 8:47
  • 2
    A management position does not even necessarily require a change in title. All it requires is having enough students.
    – JeffE
    Dec 16, 2013 at 12:12
  • Well, then, in that situation, I would modify my short answer to: "Know how many students you can effectively handle."
    – J.R.
    Dec 16, 2013 at 15:13
  • 2
    I suspect that this response to "know when to turn down a promotion offer" stems from the "Peter Principle" that was invoked in the question's title, as promotions is what that principle refers to.
    – Irwin
    Dec 17, 2013 at 0:05

Since this is a site about academia, I believe it is worth pointing out that Management as we perceive it today, has no more than a 60-70 years history as a body of knowledge which is (attempted to) be systematically taught (it started out as in-house seminars in General Electric corporation), and even less history as an academic, research discipline. Of course texts about leadership are scattered throughout human history -but they are more of a deontological nature, focusing on how a leader "should be" rather than on how they can help the reader be that leader.
This does not mean that being trained as a manager is worthless -there are general conclusions about Management that seem to stand the test of time, of activity field, and even the test of culture.
From my 20-years experience as a manager, I have two pieces of advice for someone inexperienced like you say you are:
a) Be available
b) Criticize the act and not the (professional or personal) character.


It's a great question and one that is not asked often enough, inside or outside of academia.

In my experience, all first time managers suck at it. Likely you will too. Don't be disheartened, just understand that proper management technique has a large artistic component and you just have to learn by doing (and usually by making mistakes).

I do not think this is a good excuse to turn down the job. If you take a management job later you will still likely start off as a poor manager. That said, starting too young will make it more difficult (on you and on those you manage) simply because of less life-experience.

The key is to be open minded and, as teachers always tell students, read more. In your case, read as much as you can. There are so many great management books out there from very well respected writers (Drucker, Covey, etc.). Read, experience, reflect. As you learn you will be more competent and that is, in the end, how you avoid the Peter Principle.

Another key I had always thought relevant to avoiding the Peter Principle was that you should never accept a job that you cannot already do 50% of. The same is true when recruiting - never offer a position to someone unless they can already do at least 50% of the job.

  • 4
    In my experience, all first time ANYTHING suck at it.
    – JeffE
    Dec 16, 2013 at 2:47

Let me add a few scattered points to the answers that are already here.

  • First of all, I'm not sure your question is about Peter Principle. As I understand it, the Peter Principle is about ending up with a position that you cannot and will never be able to cope with. I think this is very different from not being a good manager because you're just at the stage to start learning management skills.
    From that point of view, there's nothing wrong with trying to learn management. If you are afraid that management isn't your thing, make sure you have a way out at least every once in a while. This also means that you need to stay at the top of your 'primary' profession (I consider full-time management a different profession!).

  • Find yourself a good mentor. Personally, I'm lucky: in one of my former positions I had an exceptionally good leader. We're still on good terms, and I know where I can ask for advise on leading. I do so, too.
    Of course it helps if the mentor is from academia, too. But this is not necessary. Look around not only with colleagues but also with friends, acquaintances etc.

  • Maybe your partner or a good friend is in a similar situation, and you could discuss and reflect every once in a while what you've encountered.

  • Side note: There's a saying that on average a human needs to exercise a profession 10 to 15 years to arrive at the top of the personal performance in that profession. I think this also applies to management, though there are counter-examples. All in all, it means that your first students will suffer from your lack of experience.

  • However, I try to be open with students about the fact that I'm learning these skills, and also when I don't know how to teach them something. As others have already said, being aware of the potential problem is probably already more than half of the solution: It is one of those points where those who are concerned would not need to be concerned, and those who aren't probably should be.

    If you are open about learning your part, it is easier for students to give you the feedback you need. It is your step to mutual openness.
    In my culture (German) it is up to the senior (position) to offer the Du. Likewise, I think the supervisor should make the first step in being open about the soft skills. If this is about criticizing your leadership, you'll normally have to repeat this several times until a mutual level of trust is established that allows students to give you feedback.

=> Look around you what is going on. Try to find out what goes well and why, and what went wrong and why.

  • A bad enemy of learning these skills is being assigned too many students, and being assigned students where you did not participate at all in the application/selection process (I'm in a close-to-academia institution, but with us, students have to apply for research topics.) IMHO this can lead to serious trouble between the supervisor and the students, and backfires already in the mid-future (some improved skills pay off very quickly I think).
    I'd like to encourage you: keep fighting that your needs (time, space, ...) for improving these skills will be met somehow.
    Of course, one also needs to learn how to cope with the more difficult situations...

  • Last but not least, probably you did have some training on this:

    • Likely, you have been looking already after undergrad/practicum students.
    • Possibly, you have (unofficially?) supervised Bachelor's / Master's theses already. Or at least helped with the supervision.
    • Likely, you have been attending meetings already.
      Possibly, you have already been leading meetings.
    • Possibly, you have been in charge already. For sure, for your thesis. Maybe also for other projects.
    • Also, you probably have by now some experience in managing the managers. ;-)

Disclaimer: I'm not in a management position. Though I try to learn it while working in my primary profession. I actually think switching over to management too early too much is a waste of all the training and learning. Personally, I want to see some fruits of the highly productive phase that I think I've reached now after some 10 years in my profession -- I like that far too much to leave it completely for management. But I see that it is basically impossible to be a good group leader and do substantial amounts of scientific work yourself. So I try to slow down the changing sides to management. On the other hand, I've done quite a bit of leading students behind the scenes. And I've been responsible for several projects on a volunteering basis.


If you are worried that you aren't trained to manage the humans under your direction go to Human Resources and ask them what "early management development" support they offer. These are the type of afternoon or day long seminars on things like employment guidelines, university policies about being the supervisor for a bunch of people. You would be surprised how useful it can be to understand how departments like Accounts Payable work (reimbursements come much faster when the paperwork is done the first time). There should also be opportunities for them to help you develop the kind of workplace leadership skills that you may feel need sharpening because they aren't the same as research leadership skills.

One thing though, most of the development opportunities will be focused mainly on staff, not faculty. But once you start talking about managing employees much of it carries over. Of course, simply talking with other folks who have run large groups before. But always press them for specifics of what they wish they had not done.

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