While scientists may perform hands-on chemistry, large projects also require someone who understands the science but can keep their eye on the big picture and balance all the competing aspects. Project managers are those people—they can communicate about the scientific aspects of the project, but their focus is on motivating the team members and planning, organizing, managing, and assigning resources so as to achieve a specific goal. As projects have gotten more complex and interdisciplinary, the project manager’s job has become even more important—to balance all competing constraints and achieve the end goal of the project.
In general, project managers oversee a single well-defined group of tasks with a specific deadline and goal, while program manager or portfolio managers oversee ongoing activities and larger groups of projects.
Many project managers started on this path because they were concerned about the bigger picture and wanted to set research directions and think more strategically. By coordinating projects and leading groups in the development of new products, they have the satisfaction of knowing they play a key role in the financial success of the company.
Few chemists go to school to become managers, though many migrate into that over the course of their career. The best training is first to master your field, and then broaden your perspective with knowledge of other disciplines such as biology, chemical engineering, materials science, and biotechnology. Taking on leadership roles in student organizations and running events and activities will provide practical experience that will transfer to the professional world. Business classes that deal with the different aspects of project management can also be useful.
Most project managers work in an office, which is often near the laboratories and people they are managing. However, if you are working for a global organization, you may have people all over the world and may need to be available during their workday. In companies that have downsized, some managers say they have more work than they can realistically accomplish. Pressure to shorten research and development cycles and to “do more with less” are combining to increase stress for project managers.
Generally, chemists spend a few years working in their field before moving into a management position. Most gradually grow in to the role, as they demonstrate exceptional skill at managing their own projects and are gradually given more responsibility. Many companies now require certification in project management, and there are currently six levels of certification available.
In almost every scientist’s career, there is a critical time in when he or she must choose either a technical career in research or a management career path. If they choose to pursue a career in management, the scope of their work changes dramatically. Rather than focus their expertise on researching a particular material or process, they dedicate themselves to directing larger programs, bringing in more money for research, and mentoring the careers of others.
Demand always exists for individuals willing to assume positions of leadership in scientific projects. Managers today say they are on the lookout for new recruits with the ability to proceed in either direction—management or research. Career experience working with or leading interdisciplinary teams is very valuable for project managers.
The best chemists do not necessarily make the best managers. Instead, people who derive satisfaction from bringing others together and who don’t feel they have to do everything themselves tend to be better suited for careers in management. A broad perspective and the ability to integrate chemistry with other disciplines is also important. Managers say being a mentor, cheerleader, delegator, and good listener are key roles in their jobs.
Demand always exists for individuals willing to assume positions of leadership in scientific projects. Managers today say they are on the lookout for new recruits with the ability to proceed in either direction—management or research.