Tag Archives: project management

Getting Cut from the Team

3 Jan
Doing the "Shark Attack" cheer.

Doing the “Shark Attack” cheer.

I love ice hockey. Ever since I was a kid and used to tag along with my season ticket-holder dad to the Richmond (VA) Robins games, I’ve loved it. I wish I could have played it. I wish I could put on all of those pads and fly around the ice, smashing into other people and the boards. I love the rough and tumble, blue collar nature of the sport. I love its northern roots. I love the cold, winter, snow, ice, and ice hockey. I live in the right place.

I grew up to be a season ticket holder myself; a fan of my hometown team, the Worcester Sharks, the AHL affiliate of the San Jose Sharks (baseball fans, think Triple-A; football fans think University of Miami). Early in December, I went on the season ticket holder bus trip to Manchester, NH, to cheer for the Sharks as they took on the Manchester Monarchs. On the ride up, we watched the movie, “Miracle.” Arguably the greatest American sports story, the movie tells of the 1980 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team – at that time, a group of amateur and college players – who, against great odds, defeated one of the best hockey teams in history, the Soviet Union national team. It’s a movie and a story that makes me cry every time I see it. It’s a story that’s symbolic of so much that is the best in us in sports and in life. 

In the movie, there’s a particularly emotional scene where Coach Herb Brooks has to cut one last player in order to get the final roster to 20. He carried 21 players as long as he could, but when it came time for the Olympics to begin, he could only carry 20 guys on the team. The last player cut from the squad was Ralph Cox. Brooks himself had once been the last player cut from an Olympic squad (1960), so he knew a particular truth about the decision; (1) it was terribly difficult to make and (2) it wasn’t to be the crushing end of Cox’s hockey career. Both men went on to play hockey after this shared life event and both had success. But in 1960 and in 1980, neither would make their respective teams. They were each the last ones cut.

I got word last week that I’ve been cut from one of the research teams/projects that I’ve been working on for awhile. After a year of feeling like I was rolling right along in my new(ish) role as an embedded librarian and informationist, snaring opportunities and having  lot of success, I got cut. And I admit, it was a little bit of a blow. There’s not enough money on the grant to keep me, I haven’t been able to carve out the time necessary to do my best work, and there’s someone else who can do what I was doing for the team. I’ve been cut. 

By far, the hardest part of doing this embedded role is the feeling of being pulled in multiple directions, or perhaps better stated, having your foot in multiple doors. It’s hard to balance it all. I’ve tried to learn a lot about project management, prioritizing, organizing time and tasks, and the like, but at the end of the day, I still have a long way to go to be better at doing this. I don’t think I’m alone in my struggle, either. I think that we all have a bit of a hard time juggling multiple roles and projects, particularly as we continue to do more with less. Lots of people work in such an environment. And as it doesn’t appear that there’s any relief and/or change in this situation in the future, I need to do my best to get better at doing my best in this setting. It’s a goal for the new year.

So while the sting of being cut is still there, I’m also reminding myself that Herb Brooks and Ralph Cox went on to do good, even great, things in their lives. Getting cut from the team isn’t the end of the world. It’s not even the end of the season.

A clean desk for 2014. A clean "ice rink" for my Sharks bobbleheads!

A clean desk for 2014. A clean “ice rink” for my Sharks bobbleheads!

Match Game

9 Jul
One of my all-time favorite shows of the 70s, The Match Game!

One of my all-time favorite shows of the 70s, The Match Game!

I found out yesterday that a friend and colleague has accepted a new job and heading off to a different city, different library, different adventures. For a long time, I looked at job announcements. Sometimes I still do, particularly when they pass across social media sites (Did you know that Queen Elizabeth is looking for a librarian to oversee her personal library?) or on professional listservs (It’s hard to ignore a job opening in France – the cafes, the coffee, the atmosphere. Tres bien.) But I don’t actively seek out the sites that post jobs and I don’t think about the possibility of doing something else. I do have a mobile coffee cart that I’m working on – a 3-wheeled bike that I’m outfitting to sell coffee at festivals and farmers markets – and on occasion I play in a band, but those things are fun. I have no dreams of quitting my day job to do either of them full-time. 

And that, folks, is a first. 

I have worked at a whole slew of different jobs ever since I was 15 years old, earlier if you count mowing lawns and babysitting. I earned a bunch of degrees at a bunch of schools, always trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my vocational life and thinking that if I only had the education, I’d be all set. For the past 8 1/2 years, I’ve been a librarian. Like putting together your fantasy team, it looked good on paper, me and the library. We were a good match. I love libraries (their physical forms) and research and looking stuff up. I love the feeling of finding an article or a citation or some quirky fact or figure that eludes most others. I love looking, looking, looking and going down all of the many paths of the many things that you come across while you search. I love having a whole brain-full of trivial facts; the result of browsing through so many different subjects. I love that I do well on “Jeopardy!” (at least in the comforts of my living room).

Still, even after a number of years being a librarian, I could find myself too regularly wondering what it might be like to work in another library, in another place, in a different discipline. I eventually came to accept the fact that this was just my nature. I’d always be a little unsettled in work.

I also always believed that promotion was the way of success in a library. Like lots of kinds of work, I just assumed that I’d start off at one level and then work my way up, accepting more responsibility along the way. Libraries are fairly flat organizations, at least the ones I’m most familiar with, and so you basically move from being a librarian to being some kind of administrator. If you’re really good, you become a library director.

A few years into my career, I figured that’s the path I ought to pursue. Things worked out in my library that I got a supervisory role, overseeing our Research and Scholarly Communication services. I was the head of a group, even if the group consisted only of two or three people. It was a step in the upward direction. 

But despite that “right path,” I found out that it wasn’t me. I’m not much of an administrator. Some of this I learned pretty easily. Some was more than a little difficult and took a good bit of a toll over time. Eventually, I began to think that it was time for me to look for something else. I just figured that I’d reached that time – like lots of other times before – where it was time to try something new. Time, time, time. Time’s up.

I began to look at job ads. I began to look around my own campus at other opportunities, places and positions where I could maybe use the knowledge that I had, but do something different. I thought about applying to be a project manager or project coordinator. I thought about how I could persuade a research department of the benefits of having a project manager who also knew how to be a librarian. Think of how they’d never again have the headaches associated with NIH Public Access compliance. They’d never have to worry about calling someone from the library to help them with difficult searches or bibliographic management. I could manage projects AND do that. That’s what I was thinking. That, along with job opportunities in really fun cities.

But then fate struck (better fate than lightning). The supplemental grant awards for informationist services were announced. My library director thought we needed to apply for one. As the story goes, we did, we got an award, and I got a new job. Bing-Bang-Boom. Kind of.

I’m not sure that my library director has always known what to do with me. I can admit that I was probably something of a frustration from time to time. What do you do with a librarian that doesn’t quite fit the mold of the work that needs to be done? What do you do with an employee who you know is always kind of feeling a little out of place? What do you do when skills and interests don’t match with the usual progressions and/or promotions? These are the kind of questions that directors and administrators have to struggle with, which might be why I’m not very good at it. I don’t have that much patience.

Fortunately, I do have a director who saw an opportunity and who said, “I think that you’d be really good at this.” Doing this job meant that I had to give up the supervisory role. It meant that I had to accept that my best skills don’t lie in the areas that will lead me up the promotional ladder. But it really is okay, because while I might not be going up any traditional ladder of success, I’m finding the kind of success that I really can’t imagine I could find in any regular route. I feel like I get many of the benefits of working as a solo librarian, without having to leave the nest altogether. I can be entrepreneurial without having to risk losing my health insurance and retirement. I can gain a whole lot of new colleagues without having to leave behind old ones.

In many ways, I’m working the same way that researchers and project managers and analysts and others on the research teams work. It’s the best of both worlds. Everyone is a team player, but with somewhat subtle differences from being on organized teams within a larger structure (like the library). Everyone is also a bit of a renegade. It reminds me of Russell Crowe’s character in that movie where he plays the cop who takes down Denzel Washington, the drug dealer. He’s a really good cop, but he doesn’t work so well with others, that is until he finds the right “others.” When that happens, he ends up leading a pretty formidable team. 

Now I’m no Russell Crowe (I don’t look nearly as good in a skirt, gladiator or no), but I do think that I work for a few people who are like him. Or at least like that character. The PIs I’ve come to know and work for over the past few months are people who need to do their own thing. They can work within a set of guidelines, but they’re all freelancers, a bunch of really smart and inquisitive people who want to figure out the answers to a lot of questions that interest them. And to do that, they build teams of people around them who, I think, might be kind of like them. They look for people who complement their skills, while also matching their personalities.

Library directors do this too, though they might not always have quite the latitude and flexibility of the PIs. Over time, a library can take on the personality of its director. It can certainly follow the directions and interests of him/her. Two of the library directors that I respect most are my own, Elaine Martin, and Jean Shipman, the director of the Eccles Health Sciences Library at the University of Utah. They couldn’t be much more different in terms of their outward personalities and they each have different passions in terms of the services and directions that they want their libraries to provide and go. But they are both extremely successful and effective in their roles. 

In the same way, I see all sorts of personalities and visions and work styles and leadership styles and more in the different researchers that I’ve come to know. Principal investigators who have successful labs and studies build good teams around them; teams made up of people who match what they need. (As an aside, both Elaine and Jean are PIs on major grants from the National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.) It really is a lot about finding and/or making the right matches.

And all of this is a really rambling way of saying that if and when we’re lucky enough, persistent enough, stubborn enough, and/or any combination of these, we can find the right position where who we are and the skills that we possess match up with someone else’s needs and skills and personality. I also think that this particular phenomenon (for lack of a better word) is really difficult to define and quantify, and as such makes it hard when it comes to telling anyone how he/she/they might find success in this informationist role. People ask, students ask, colleagues ask, other library directors ask, the grant funders ask… but as of yet, I’m not quite sure what the answer is. I do know, however, that I’m for once not even thinking about what another job could be like. This one is pretty great every day. 

 

What’s In Your Toolbox?

4 Feb

Last fall, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences here at the University of Massachusetts Medical School hired, for the first time, an Assistant Dean for Career and Professional Development. Cynthia Fuhrmann, PhD, has been on the job since September, working hard towards her charge of establishing an overall program for career planning for the doctoral students at our university. Dr. Fuhrmann comes to us from the University of California, San Francisco, a school that has proved to be a leader in the area of academic career development.

Why, you might ask, do students in such a specialized field need help deciding on a career? Haven’t they already done that? Isn’t that why they’re here pursuing graduate studies? The answer seems to be both yes and no. Many students do enter graduate school with some idea of the direction that their career will take. Most probably believe that they’re on the well-trod path of those who’ve gone before them, because for a long time, careers in science followed a pretty specific pipeline:

Undergraduate degree in a science  ->  Graduate degree in a science  ->  Postdoctoral training  -> Tenure-track faculty in academia

Like many other professions today, however, the path that we used to follow is nowhere near as clear-cut or as straight. Today’s doctoral students are just as likely to end up working for biotech companies, for the government, or for universities, or even some combination of these. They may end up doing research, creating new products or drugs, teaching, writing, policy-making, or any number of other things. In fact, as more and more students earn PhDs, the number of tenure track positions available to them lags significantly behind. Even if they enter their graduate studies wanting to stay in academia, the odds of doing such are against them.

The National Institutes of Health and other funding agencies have noticed this trend and are beginning to call on graduate schools and programs to better prepare their students for a broader career path. Students need to have ways to explore their different career options, develop the skills they need in these different areas, and gain relevant experience that will serve them well as they move into the biomedical workforce. Thus, schools like UCSF and now my own institution, UMMS, are designing programs, services, and educational opportunities to meet this growing need.

I had the chance to hear Dr. Fuhrmann speak last week. In her presentation, she outlined this need and her vision, goals and anticipated outcomes for her new position. I’d had some brief communication with her earlier and we have plans to work on a project together in the future, but this was my first opportunity to hear first-hand why the University created this new position and what will come out of it. A little more than half-way through her talk, she put up the following slide:

Fuhrmann_Skills Slide

Credit: Cynthia Fuhrmann, PhD
Used with permission.

As I read the different pieces, particularly the spokes off of the “Professional Development Skills” balloon, I couldn’t help but notice the striking resemblance between these skills and those that we’ve been talking about in our own profession. Strong writing and editing, including the ability to write proposals for projects or grants, are needed by young scientists. They’re needed by librarians and/or informationists, too. When graduates become researchers, they likely need to know how to present their work, their proposals, their findings. They likely need to know how to teach the subject(s) that they’ve learned. It’s expected of them. The same can be said for the librarian. It’s expected of us. We all need to know how to manage projects. We all need to know how to manage (or at least work successfully with) other people. We all need to become more creative and more innovative. In other words, we’re all in the same boat.

Will library and information science schools get on board with biomedical science programs and begin to develop the necessary programs to best prepare their graduates in these areas? And for those of us already working, can we or do we easily find the opportunities that we need to continue our professional development around these things? It’s true that you can learn a lot on the job, but it’s also true that simply standing in front of a classroom of students is not teaching. Juggling projects is not the same as managing them. Working with people via forced teams or committees doesn’t guarantee the best outcomes. Networking is more than talking to people at a party. We need to learn and hone the skills necessary in these areas that will bring us success. It needs to become a priority.

It’s my hope that as we continue to branch out in our own field, we will begin to see more clearly the skills we need for success and then, once we identify them, have the support of our institutions, our administrations, and our professional organizations towards meeting them. I hope we can expand our offerings of CE classes at professional meetings, bringing in courses that touch on some of these other skills. I hope we can be supported to go to different kinds of meetings and events outside of the usual suspects. And more than anything, I hope that we individually have the spark and initiative and excitement to do so. With these all coming together, we will surely strengthen both ourselves and our profession.

Special thanks to Cynthia Fuhrmann, PhD, for her insights related to this post and for sharing her presentation slides with me.

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