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Imagine a relatively new Postdoc. She joined a new group (3-5 PhDs, 1 Prof.) and due to 'special circumstances' (Prof. too busy and mostly unavailable) is now responsible for all the PhD and Master/Bachelor students, as well as teaching obligations.

The Prof. believes highly in the Postdoc and has given her control over most of the administrative things that needs to be done, e.g. signing documents, hiring new people, choosing research topics, etc. There is a lot of freedom.

The Postdoc believes that these tasks are a good test to find out if she is interested in being a Prof. one day because they give first hand experience.

Question: The administrative tasks are taking too much of her time, there is hardly any time left for research. Will this administrative work be seen positively by a selection committee in the future, and can it replace "publishing very high quality research papers" to some extent?

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    Learning to work with and through others is good prep. I would hope that her work with the PhDs and students on research directions would result in multiple papers. Most might well have the PhDs as first authors, but she should be able to get a few with her as first author as well.
    – Jon Custer
    Oct 4, 2023 at 16:08
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    I'm confused as to whether you include student supervision and teaching under the term "administrative work". Supervision of PhD students definitely helps your career, as it leads to papers and, well, PhD student supervision experience. BSc and MSc supervision experience can help, but usually less so than PhD students. Oct 4, 2023 at 16:15
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    I find the hypothetical language to be distracting and not useful to asking the question. Oct 5, 2023 at 2:27
  • On the hiring committees I've sat on, we valued administrative experience even for those straight out of grad school. It will depend on the institution, the specific people on the hiring committee, and what else is on your CV. It's very subjective, but more experience in everything is generally better. Of course, research is the most important thing, generally, somewhat paradoxically, even for teaching institutions in many cases.
    – jdods
    Oct 6, 2023 at 1:41

9 Answers 9

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No, administrative work will not 'replace "publishing very high quality research papers"'.

From my experience in biomedical sciences (I understand from your posting history you are in natural sciences), newly hired independent investigators are expected to have a clear history of publishing novel, exciting research manuscripts. These should be first or last author publications.

Selection committees receive huge numbers of applications, and there is no objective way to quantitate the types of administrative responsibilities you describe. Therefore, you should strive to balance these responsibilities with the primary goal of publishing your own research papers.

Of course, it's easy for me to say that you need to do less administrative work. I would recommend trying to gently bring up this problem with your advisor. One potential way to frame the discussion would be, "I really appreciate you giving me the freedom and responsibility to hire folks and choose our research direction. At the same time, I worry the time this takes is limiting my ability to focus on the research. I wonder if you have any ideas on how I might get some assistance with these responsibilities."

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I would presume the potential benefits to be primarily in what the postdoc learns about the job, and not about how others evaluate the postdoc's competence.

That is, it is very helpful to the post doc to learn about the underlying academic systems like managing finances and employee management. However, helpful as they may be, these things are not going to be valued on a resume.

Choosing research topics seems very strange to include on a list of "administrative" tasks, though: that's a task quite central to any research program, not administrative at all. And while "doing paperwork for hiring" is not going to be useful on a resume, a record of successful mentoring of students and staff certainly can be.

It is still most important for research-focused jobs (such as tenure-track positions at research universities) to have successful individual research progress, and if these other tasks are preventing any research progress that seems like a substantial problem.

I would also be a little wary of the gender roles in this situation, as there are common stories of women specifically being assigned or taking on a more administrative role, to the eventual detriment of their career. See for example Monroe, K., Ozyurt, S., Wrigley, T., & Alexander, A. (2008). Gender equality in academia: Bad news from the trenches, and some possible solutions. Perspectives on politics, 6(2), 215-233.

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    Great point about gender roles. Oct 4, 2023 at 19:22
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    The gender for the post was picked randomly without recourse to the factual situation.
    – quantacad
    Oct 4, 2023 at 20:31
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    @quantacad that is not a great idea - there is an easy way to just use gender neutral language (use they instead of he or him) because there are gender specific issues that might factor in to this question and by "pretending" that the person in question is female, you influence the answers.
    – Sursula
    Oct 5, 2023 at 8:32
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Assuming the postdoc is interested in assuming an academic career, the postdoc should be in a mad rush to do whatever is necessary to help them land that first assistant professorship.

If the experience before the postdoc does not demonstrate any supervisory experiences, then it might be helpful if some of that happened during the postdoc. If the postdoc is looking for a pure teaching position, it might be helpful to take on more than "some"

However, the big question mark in faculty recruiting is "is the applicant's research sufficient to drive a career?" This would mean that that vast majority of the applicants time should go toward research and publication.

The situation has the feel of a "bait and switch" to me. If the investigator was looking for a lab manager, they should have hired a lab manager.

All that said, a quote often misattributed to Einstein says "In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity". The postdoc might well consider whether the "Special Circumstances" might be a platform to negotiate for more money, commensurate with the responsibilities, or even a permanent position, depending upon how "Special" the Special Circumstances are.

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Research administrator here from an R1 university (in the US). I've worked with labs in pre- and post-award for 13 years. Here's what I can tell you about working with researchers who learn admin tasks (like proposal writing, finance work, contracting, etc.). If the postdoc's intention is to be a PI -- there is no "PI School". This is an academic's only chance to learn these things before that work is "assigned". Once it's assigned, administrators assume you will know how to do things. This is not the case for postdocs and students. In my experience working with hundreds of my peers, we have some pity on the fact they are asked to do things they are not responsible for and will be elated that they take an interest in our work. We know that most groups cannot afford lab managers, and some PIs do expect postdocs to help shoulder this burden. In my experience, this is very normal in large labs, and in particular the natural sciences.

My advice for any postdoc or student is to learn how the basic components of the research actually work. You don't have to become friends with the administrators in your department, but it can have tremendous benefits. When I worked in a Chemistry department, I would have students come and bring me tea and ask me to help get them out of jam by ordering supplies on rush. They came to me when the dry ice didn't arrive on time. When the copier jammed, they knew I was the one to help. How to tell if the fax went through? Ask me. When they wanted to put in fellowship proposals, they came to me and I taught them how to pace their work. I taught them as much as I could about how my world works, and when I left that job, I received an outpouring of departing words and gifts primarily from students. I have never forgotten them, even though I left that job 8 years ago.

The main complaint I have about researchers I've worked with is that they tend to assume "admin work" is a waste of time. It's an attitude that is pretty insulting to me and my peers, who dedicate our lives to this work. Ideally, this should be a partnership. I'm here to support the research, help me help you. If you want your supplies to arrive on time, please don't come to me at 4:45pm on a Friday and expect me to put it through the system. Be thoughtful and plan ahead. Know who the approvers are and be kind to them. Our most effective students and postdocs do better in their research because they know the staff and get more out of the experience. It's an investment.

I'm working with a postdoc on a K99 application right now, and I take the time to make sure they are more likely to get that award--I am going out of my way for this person because they take the proposal process seriously and do their part, respecting deadlines. The central office deadline is Friday, but I'm going to ask to get her an extension until Tuesday. I do that because of her performance with administrative tasks. I am trying to get another postdoc to file their IRB paperwork, and it has been an extremely difficult process. The attitude of that postdoc is that all of this work is my work, and so I am not going to put myself out to help him. He is jeopardizing his own research by not digging into the paperwork as I asked, continuing to delay approvals on his research.

When I get assigned a junior PI, I can tell immediately if they have "it". When they pay attention to admin policies, work with me, their proposals get funded. The ones who always put "admin" off until the end, like an afterthought, usually lack project management skills. In the end, university research requires strong project management skills. You need to learn who your stakeholders are and manage them. I entirely agree that there will be nothing on your resume that shows one's awesome administrative skills. However, in my experience, those who are most effective in their research are the same ones who come to me with problems and the understanding that I spend my time on a solution. It's the partnership with administration that makes them effective.

All this being said -- if the postdoc's work is actually slipping -- they can't keep up with the basic research, there is a problem. Make sure the administrative work is being done effectively -- find good staff members in the department and ask for help. Learn the policies and procedures to avoid wasting time. If it's still too much, then yes, it's time to lower the amount of burden.

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I've been on hiring committees when hiring pure mathematicians/data scientists at an R1 Ph.D. granting university. Short answers:

1: "Will this administrative work be seen positively by a selection committee in the future?" Sure. It's nice to see someone at an early age proving that the they are competent/willing to do admin work. But it's understood that time and opportunities to do this at the postdoc stage in one's career is limited!

2: "can it replace "publishing very high quality research papers" to some extent?" HELL NO! Without high quality research we frankly don't even look at candidates. Why would we? Your job first and foremost is research! It also would look really weird to carry a lot of admin roles without prioritizing research at this level.

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Let me offer a slightly different perspective on the issue. For the record: I am a mathematician but I am well-familiar with hiring/promotion practices in lab sciences.

  1. If a postdoc is planning to apply for tenure-track jobs in academia or to have a career as a self-supported (through grants) researcher in academia, then, as others have said, no administrative experience will serve as a substitute for a strong publication record. However, this happens quite often that lab's PI dumps administrative duties onto their postdocs (and even on their students), to the detriment of postdoc's future academic career. This should not be happening, but it does.

  2. However, there are other research jobs in academia, where people are hired and promoted based on parameters other than publications (and where publications are not even required!). These are typically "specialist" jobs in labs. Some (of course, not all!) of the specialists are hired for their administrative skills after completing their postdocs (I have seeing enough of such hires through my oversight work). If, for whatever reason, a postdoc is planning to apply for such a position (for instance, as a way to solve a "2-body problem" or because they were told by their PI that such a job will be available in their lab while getting a more regular academic position will be difficult if not impossible), then having relevant administrative skills will be the key (and some of the specialists are hired with very few or no publications). Why would a PI want to hire a PhD with a postdoctoral experience to do administrative work instead of hiring somebody with just an MA/MS degree is another question (and I can offer some insight here as well), but some of them do.

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Having served on and chaired many biology and biomedical sciences faculty search committees at R1 universities, I would say the answer is absolutely not. Committees typically have to go through a very large number of candidates to produce a small short list of people to be interviewed. Nobody has time to wade through the descriptions of supposed administrative activities while we construct this short list. We scrutinize publications, grant history, (or at least grant potential), and the candidate's statement on what problems they plan to pursue if they are given an independent position. We also look at the letters of recommendation. Then we look at any teaching history, and their statement of teaching interests. But for sure the first thing we do on the CV is go straight to the publication list. It's good to have an idea how to run a lab. But if you don't have a competitive publication track record you will never get your foot in the door. So you need to make sure that these extra responsibilities are not hindering your productivity. I would also suggest based on what you're saying that your postdoctoral advisor is not helping you by having you do a lot of things that he or she should be doing. To me it seems almost abusive.

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The answer is no. Especially for the first post doc. Some things, like choosing a research topic, do not constitute admin work, though.

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Speaking from the experience of someone who has sat on a tenure track hiring committee at an R1, there is two types of administrative work that can be beneficial to put on your resume (from the list of things you describe in your post): writing grants and mentoring students. Everything else will not count toward your goal. I do agree with others that your number one priority should be high quality research - both in terms of impact and venue.

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