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My former postdoc has a new position at an R1 as an Assistant Professor. He is horrified at something I myself once struggled with: he is discovering that his job is a form of management. The individual contributor skillset he succeeded with in my laboratory is one he can no longer indulge as much as he desires...

'Is this avoidable?', is his question. He is asking in the context of leaving, potentially.

I myself have minimized this, mostly by being well published, bringing research dollars, and using the resulting leverage in refusing almost all service within my department. However, I am yet much more a manager than he wishes to be.

What are viable strategies to remain an individual contributor and also remain competitive for tenure?

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    In some fields it is easy. Mathematicians can just say no. In other fields, lab science, perhaps, it is part of the job itself.
    – Buffy
    Oct 29 at 19:40
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    If you have grants and students and labs you will, of course, have to manage them. It often surprises me that students, while hanging around universities, somehow are surprised to realize just what professors do, as if they had not bothered observing...
    – Jon Custer
    Oct 29 at 19:47
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    It is called the "Peter principle" (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_principle) - often the qualities that get you promoted at one level are not the skills you need to succeed at the level to which you are promoted. Being good at research does not imply that you will be a good research manager. The best thing to do would be to find a research topic that doesn't require grants or research assistants. Oct 29 at 20:20
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    @DikranMarsupial When you find such a research topic, can you let me know where you can find a unicorn and like 6 Bitcoin? Oct 29 at 20:56
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    With the recommendation to find fields that require little funding there is definately something to be careful of: In many universities you will be measured by how much grant funding you bring in, even if your field doesn't require funding, but particularly if you work in a field where some topics require funding and others don't. E.g. a bioinformatician in a biology department will find themsevles bottom of the pile, unpromoted and given lots of teaching if they take that attitude that their work requires minimal funding. Oct 30 at 12:27
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Embrace the power of no

There are plenty of junior to mid-career positions in academia that do not have any serious management component. Consequently, it ought to be possible for an academic to remain in a position without any management responsibilities, so long as they are willing to accept a lower ceiling on academic promotion and pay. Most of the senior positions in universities have some management component, and the "higher" you go the larger the management component. Of course, there are some highly-paid and highly-esteemed academic positions that are pure research positions, but these are extremely competitive.

Like anyone else in an organisation where you begin in a technical capacity, academics need to recognise the realities of how a university functions. Like any other large institution, the higher level positions almost all involve heavy management responsibilities and a corresponding reduction in individual technical work. ​If you don't want these positions, you have the freedom to apply for lower level positions where the expectations of the role are more concentrated on research, teaching, and other individual technical work. If one where to restrict attention solely to positions that lead to tenure then obviously this leaves less variation in roles, and it entails accepting the roles that are generally present in those positions.

Your colleague/friend may need to look around for another position until he finds one that has role expectations that are compatible with what he wants to do. This should be possible in principle, but there are some obstacles to be aware of. There is an unfortunate tendency in some universities to have an "up or out" mentality where they expect all their junior and mid-career academic staff to work towards higher-level professorial positions that entail large administrative and management roles, or large funding expectations. This can sometimes manifest in a bias against older highly-experienced academics who apply for lower-level positions to avoid those roles. Nevertheless, some university admissions panels appreciate that experienced academics may wish to remain in lower-level roles that do not have a large administrative and management component, or which have lower expectations with regard to bringing in external funding (which is also somewhat of a management-like activity). Attitudes vary a great deal across different disciplines; in highly techincal fields (e.g., mathematics, etc.) it is not unusual for academics to turn down management and administrative work and still remain as workers in good standing for their teaching/research work.

I agree with your point that it is useful to have some leverage, such as having a strong research record and funding. Remember that this is also relative to your academic level, so if you are willing to take a lower-level position, the research and funding expectations are lower, so existing accomplishments will count as more leverage in this context. Ultimately, if he can obtain a position where the role itself does not have a high management component, and where he is "overperforming" relative to research expectations, he should have enough leverage toturn down managment and administrative roles he does not want to do.

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    Its almost impossible in some fields to avoid some management duties. In the majority of biology departments, for example, getting a grant with a postdoc funded on it, and sucessfully supervising PhD students are requirements for passing probation for even the lowest level faculty position. And few or no position below faculty level are permenant, or offer security. Oct 30 at 12:31
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    The OP is asking in the context of tenure. Are there any tenure-track positions that do not have a strong management component and are research focussed? The closest things I can think of (in North America) are a staff scientist (which as far as I know are not tenure track positions) or a professor/lecturer at a teaching university (where research is a secondary consideration). Oct 31 at 19:03
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    Some consider supervision of PhDs to be a burdensome form of management, but others consider it a (quite enjoyable) form of teaching. It is not clear from the question which category OP falls into, but most academics I have encountered have no gripes with supervision activities, so I have not addressed that here.
    – Ben
    Oct 31 at 20:38
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When writing grant proposals, one can choose to apply for funding for part of one's own salary, to spend time at the lab bench (or other disciplines' equivalent), instead of for postdocs or PhD students. The snag is that, for this to work, one has to be exceptionally good to justify the fact that a professor's salary is more expensive than a postdoc or a PhD student.

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  • This is pretty standard and even expected with UK funding agencies. Of course, you still apply for funding of 100% postdoc time, and only a fraction of the academics (10-20%). As you are eventually expected to have multiple grants running, you can theoretically apply to fund quite a portion of your own time.
    – penelope
    Nov 1 at 11:32
  • @penelope I think DanielHatton is reffering to fellowships that fund the total or a large part of the PIs salary, such like the MCR's career development fellowship, or the Wellcomes Senior Investigator award. Nov 2 at 13:18
  • @penelope Yes, that two-pronged approach is possible, but since OP's friend is trying to avoid being a manager, applying for funding for a postdoc would rather defeat the object. Nov 2 at 16:45
  • @IanSudbery Not just fellowships, I had general-purpose grants in mind too. Nov 2 at 22:06
  • @DanielHatton Most of the project grant schemes i'm aware of limit the amount of time a PI can put on a grant. And even those that don't - grant committees tend to cut what they see as excessive pi time. Nov 3 at 8:03
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Outside of universities, there might exist such positions: Independent researcher, competitive level, permanent position, good payment, collaborations with industry or other research groups, visiting conferences, writing papers, but not having to manage a group, not doing teaching (sometimes optional), less dependent on grand money.

In Germany these are research institutes like Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft or Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. Two researches from MPG won Nobel prizes in 2021.
Not sure how much the position there would suite, but I think comparable institutes exist in France (INRIA, CNRS) and the US (United States national laboratories like Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory).

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    At institutions such as CNRS a researcher is most often free of teaching duties. But for the rest, there are groups and institutes. Someone has to manage them, or the part of his/her competence as well as PhD students and post-docs. What it can be true, is that the management part involves less individuals, and at the beginning of the researcher career one has quite some time - even full time - for the lab or active research.
    – Alchimista
    Oct 31 at 7:48
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From what I have seen in North America (I am at a post-doc level), the job of a professor (especially at R1 universities) is to manage grad students/post-docs, teach, write grants, communicate research (via papers and conferences), and do admin work. Personal research seems to be essentially a side job/hobby. I am not sure if this is the actual job description, but it seems to be the job that most professors at research-oriented universities actually do.

The closest exception I can think of is that I have heard of a professor who essentially spends all day (i.e. eight hours) at a blackboard with one or two grad students working on math. I presume the professor's other duties I mentioned above are done outside of this time. While this is personal contribution and a possible strategy, it also still includes managing/supervising the student(s).

Outside of tenure, there are staff scientist positions in academia and many research positions in industry. Though, one may need to search carefully as many of these positions may involve supervising/managing junior employees (a PhD-level position in a company is often already rather high up).

There are also national lab positions, but again, one would have to look carefully as my impression is that these positions can easily have management/supervisory aspects to the job.

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How can a professor avoid becoming a manager?

They can't, because it's an intrinsic part of the job. A significant component of "management" involves looking after people, and so one starts becoming a manager the moment they take on a post-grad student, and certainly when they hire a postdoc. Possibly a researcher could sidestep this by becoming an eternal postdoc (lifetime on fixed-term contracts) or a one-person CRO in their garage, but then they wouldn't be a professor any more. Notice that "management" isn't the same as "administration" or "teaching".

Has your postdoc got a sustainable work-life balance? Is the project ethical? Does your post-grad have a proper desk and computer? Is the lab equipment safe? Is your postdoc being harassed by a colleague, or is she bullying the students? All these, and more, are your problem as the professor.

As recounted in the Wellcome Trust's "What researchers think about the culture they work in" the research sector is particularly rife with exploitation, bullying and harassment; that report is in line with my own experience and observations. There are plenty more specific examples on this site. My (jaundiced) view is that this is partly sustained by the culture in academia having a somewhat idiosyncratic notion of responsibility and the common notion that anything like corporate management is abhorrent. I don't see how things will improve as long as the present sink-or-swim / if-they're-good-enough-they'll-survive-anything attitude is presented as being normal: people internalise it and just behave the same way to the next generation.

(Note that I drafted this off-line - in the meantime Scott Seidman has made a similar point independently, and more gently.)

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If you're teaching, you're managing a class. If you do research, especially funded research, you're managing a project or a grant (or more than one), and all the personnel contributing to that effort.

If you're well funded, bringing in research dollars, and have hired a postdoc, you are in a management position. You have not managed to minimize that, but if that's the way you feel, it might just be because you're good at it.

If this postdoc feels overwhelmed by the prospect of management, you might consider mentoring your next postdoc so as to introduce them better to the idea and train them to do it well.

While there are academic pathways that involve less management, starting as an Assistant Prof is not necessarily the best way to find those positions. It feels like that would be a backwards career step.

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