During this week’s CIDD lunch, grad students, post-docs, and faculty eagerly assembled to listen to Dr. Neil Sharkey, Vice President for Research at Penn State.
Dr. Sharkey shared with the group his not-so-traditional path to his current administrative position – starting work as a med tech in a hospital and over time becoming a research scientist, Associate Dean, and then Vice President for Research. Over the course of the talk, a recurring theme was gaining management skills to work with people of different backgrounds and different skills sets. Specifically highlighted skills included: being able to manage change (both happy and unhappy), being able to make fair decisions in a timely way, being able to network and socialize, public speaking, and gaining satisfaction from problem solving. Additionally, Dr. Sharkey emphasized how important it was to be the best scientist you are capable of being. Excellent scientists are often chosen for these positions by universities to serve as an example (or an ideal) of the kind of research going on at the university. What surprised Dr. Sharkey most in his new position was how much time he would spend dealing with attorneys and doing bureaucratic work.
One of the most amusing parts of the talk came when Dr. Sharkey pulled out his phone and described a typical day and a typical week in his schedule – full of meetings and networking events! Despite such a busy schedule, he also makes time for self care including an hour of exercise most days, gardening, and playing guitar.
Many students commented that they appreciated Dr. Sharkey’s candor, especially as he shared his worries and anxieties about various job changes – including his doubts about his ability to do a job at any given career stage and being intimidated by other colleagues whom he perceived were more accomplished. Dr. Sharkey admitted that he ‘messed up a lot early on’ but acknowledged this would happen and encouraged the assembled audience to be brave, continue to work hard, and learn from peers.
In closing, here are some key take-aways from the talk:
- There is no secret sauce or one defined pathway in a career in scientific research administration (or any career!) – it is a series of consecutive decisions over a lifetime
- Opportunities are often serendipitous – seize them as they arise, they may not come back again
- It’s not all about you – be a servant and advance others so they can succeed
- You must be a good scientist – if you know what you are talking about then you have nothing to fear
- Capitalize on your strengths
- Become knowledgeable in interdisciplinary lingo
- Often you are only one step ahead – learn from your peers
- Be a good person and work hard