Whether scientists work alone or in teams, a project manager's job is to bring people together to achieve a common goal. So says Jeff Richardson, program development leader at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. This role is becoming increasingly important because now more people are involved in research projects than in the past. "The biggest transition we're seeing in science" says Richardson, "is a move away from pure, curiosity-driven work and towards an emphasis on applications. We have to start taking into consideration what the impact of a product will be, what kind of return on investment will it bring, who will pay for it, and how to commercialize it". A single project can employ hundreds of people directly and even more indirectly in jobs ranging from developing and testing samples to manufacturing and commercializing the product. A project manager's role is also to ensure consistency in the quality of work at every step.
Richard Fuentes, a laboratory director at the advanced materials electronics lab at Dow Chemical, spends his day receiving one-on-one updates from his scientists and managers, putting together self-directed teams, allocating available resources to different projects, and strategizing about the best direction for research with business managers. The R&D managers' role of interacting with business managers has been catalyzed by the commercial approach to developing new products.
"Early in my career, I expressed an interest in management," says Fuentes. "Some people are natural managers; I wasn't seen as a natural manager right off the bat. My path to management was created through experience and mutual discussion of my career goals".
Few chemists go to school to become R&D managers, but many receive management training through their employers. R&D management is a position scientists move into over the course of their careers. Richardson says there is a critical time in almost every scientist career when he or she must choose either a technical career in research or a management career path involving directing larger programs, bringing in more money for research, and mentoring the careers of others. Some companies allow scientists to make these career choices at the time of employment.
The R&D manager must have a strong foundation in his or her scientific discipline as well as the ability to understand and work with scientists in other disciplines. Bill Huffman, director in the department of medicinal chemistry at SmithKline Beecham, says R&D managers in the pharmaceutical industry must know, for example, biology, molecular modeling, and the principles that allow drugs to be orally active.
The pharmaceutical industry works to fill unmet medical needs. Huffman spends a good deal of time finding ways for SmithKline Beecham to apply its expertise to developing new drug molecules. Part of his job involves interacting with scientists outside the company, at universities, and at companies with whom his company has strategic alliances. Though the bulk of his day is spent with scientists–particularly with the people who are making new drug molecules–Huffman, like Fuentes and Richardson, spends some of his time working with business managers and making decisions about how financial resources will be spent. He says an R&D manager should have the ability to grasp other disciplines, to be objective, and to see problems outside of his own area of expertise. "Being a good chemist is critical to being a good R&D manager, but that's just the entry card to a career in management."
R&D managers indicate they were attracted to careers in management because it offered them an opportunity to look at the big picture and to set strategy and direction in research discoveries and new products. "My name may not be on papers or patents, but I know I was part of the work that contributed to their success," says Richardson.
A project manager's job is to take broad responsibility for the scientific aspects of a research project or research team and marry its efforts with the strategic and business goals of his or her company. Time is spent working with other scientists in the lab, planning directions for research, putting together self-directed teams of scientists, obtaining in and allocating monies, and meeting with business managers.
The workday tends to be longer for managers than for bench chemists and lab scientists; managers stress that if you are working for a global organization, you must be available at all hours of the day. In companies that are downsizing, some R&D managers say they have more work than they can realistically accomplish. Pressure to shorten R&D cycles and prove a new product or molecule's feasibility in three to seven years may add stress to the job. Managers may also have to be willing to consider relocating.
Research patterns are changing. Most companies and technology-driven organizations employ self-directed research teams. But R&D managers this does not decrease the need for management skills. This shift simply means that R&D managers must now lead groups of chemists who are themselves working under new conditions. Managers at national laboratories and government agencies tend to have longer development times than industry, but being an R&D manager anywhere generally involves similar levels of responsibility and reward.
It is not always true that the best chemists will be the best managers. People who don't have to do everything themselves and can derive satisfaction from the process of bringing others together tend to be the best managers. A broad perspective and the ability to integrate chemistry with other disciplines is important. R&D managers say being a mentor, cheerleader, delegator and good listener are the key job descriptors.
Few chemists go to school to become R&D managers, though many companies provide management training to their scientists. The best training is first to master your field and then to broaden your perspective with knowledge of other disciplines such as biology, chemical engineering, materials science, and biotechnology. R&D managers strongly urge students to take courses in total synthesis if offered at their schools, because these courses offer the best academic level exposure to a project's management from start to finish.
Demand always exists for individuals willing to assume positions of leadership in scientific projects. Managers today say they are on the lookout for at new recruits with the ability to proceed in either direction–management or research.
To find out what a person in this type of position earns in your area of the country, please refer to the ACS Salary Comparator. Use of the ACS Salary Comparator is a member-only benefit. General information about salaries in chemical professions can be obtained through published survey results.
Generally, chemists spend a few years working in their field of study before moving on to management positions. However, it is always a good idea to stay current with trends and changes in your discipline as you position yourself for a career in management.
Managers need a solid grounding in their discipline. Interacting with people and the ability to present work to business mangers and peer scientists is also important. Develop interpersonal skills working with others in the lab and learn to present work with clear expository prose. These skills will prepare you well to be a manager.
Copyright 1994, 1998 American Chemical Society