A Chinese scientist considers the new responsibilities that come with his role
This piece was cross posted with Nature Asia. You can read the Chinese version here.
Guest contributor Chenggang Yan
I’ve spent ten years of my life in research. In those ten years, I’ve never been completely overwhelmed until I accepted a professorship at Hangzhou Dianzi University. Just like many other young scholars, I’m working hard to win a good reputation with my research. I went into science because – like many others – I wanted to do meaningful work, lead a new era, and benefit humanity in some way. But recently I’m finding that’s just not what I spend my time doing.
Take one of my busy weeks as an example. One day in March, my lab secretary reminded me of an important conference on time-of-flight imaging. So I needed to fly to Israel early Friday. The conference had two days of lectures and a half-day of leisure time at the Dead Sea. I skipped the beach and flew over the Atlantic to attend a meeting with some of my collaborators.
I was back in Hangzhou Thursday to attend a funding application presentation, which gave me the rare opportunity to introduce our lab and research achievements to the National Natural Science Foundation of China; it was important for one of the funding applications we’ll submit soon. After eight hours of meetings, I flew to Beijing that night. My iPhone bleeped. The next morning I needed to give a speech to the new graduate students in our lab at Tsinghua University. I opened my laptop and prepared a 25-page lecture. Though the new graduate students seemed positive, I didn’t feel I had prepared enough. Where was my time going? I used to be more organised and careful. How could I be so busy?
Having given this some thought, I started to understand. I hadn’t lost my way as such, but my role has changed – when I became a team director, my burden got heavier. A graduate student can devote themselves solely to their research topic and they don’t need to think about providing ideas and salary to their whole lab, but the team director has to consider it every day. I need to provide good lessons and do good science; and I also need to guide my graduate students, offer promotion opportunities for my team members, and get enough funding to ensure the lab’s operation and growth.
In order to achieve this, I need to market my lab and gain reputation in the academic community, both at home and internationally. By my rough estimation, in 2015 I attended at least two external events every month. And that number could be much larger if I include the mountain of unofficial events I went to. Besides those, there’s a lot of other administration work that a team director needs to do that eats up more and more of my time.
So, for these reasons, my graduate students will always find me working late in the lab; I extend my research life into the night. Sometimes I think about my situation: this should be the golden time for young researchers, when they can build experience easily and are full of energy. How can we free ourselves from the conveyor belt of secretly-obligatory social events and get back to work? I know I’m not the only one.
I’ve tried to solve this problem previously, but nothing has worked so far. I tried to encourage my graduate students to go to more networking events, but they didn’t know enough about funding or the big-picture work in my lab. I tried to hire full-time administration staff to cover my paperwork, but they didn’t know enough about research and development.
Still, I have hope. A member of my research staff is willing to take on and get to grips with some of the lab’s administration work, as she’s hoping to become a PI herself. This will – maybe – result in a win-win. I’ve come to realise that when new responsibilities pile up with a new role, we must find the right way to delegate and – eventually – be freed enough to focus on the science.
Chenggang Yan received a BSc in computer science from Shandong University in 2008, and a PhD in computer science from the Institute of Computing Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in 2013. Now he is a professor at Hangzhou Dianzi University, China.