Last week, I gave a talk to a group of about 20 local engineers and engineering students at NC State about project management, based on what I learned for my feature in Naturejobs about the career path.
My piece was about management in the life sciences, but engineering projects face many of the same common pitfalls. It's easy for timelines and budgets to get out of control, for clients to have unreasonable expectations about the end results, for the people you're managing to lose interest and 'buy-in.'
It felt strange and somewhat scary to get up in front of experienced project managers and talk about these issues as an outsider, but the audience was super friendly and interactive. Afterwards, people shared their 'war stories' in management, namely about how easily things can get out of control.
Being a good project manager means being able to motivate and inspire the right people from the very beginning of the project, the audience told me. A student asked whether it means you need to be a "people pleaser," and the veterans responded that's not quite it: you're not going to make everyone happy, but you need to respect them and keep them involved.
Some students asked questions about how they can get into management, and we talked about the variety of ways you can build your knowledge in this area, by for example, getting an MBA or a MEM (Master of Engineering Management) or Project Management Professional certification. It doesn't seem like there's a single right answer for how much or what sort of training you should get -- rather, it'll depend on the company you work for and how much technical knowledge your job requires.
Many people learn on the job, and that's okay too (though it can be stressful). It seems like aspects of project management come naturally to some people. (Kind of like how good bedside manners might come more easily to some doctors than others.) In management, I think that the ability to motivate others may be one of those skills that's hard to teach.
The students in the audience seemed eager to pick up these soft skills, though. Many students I've interacted with are focused on having their careers planned out. I think that's great, but I would just say that it's all too common for people to take unexpected paths, for the better. As one audience member said, if you find a person whose job you hope to have one day, ask her how she got to that position. More often than not, you'll find that she took the scenic route.
I've been holed up in my home office in the past few months, willing the winter to disappear but also getting massive cabin fever. All this isolation makes me an awkward human being. (See The Oatmeal on what it's like to work at home.)
The good news is that I'm getting stuff done.
In February, I had a piece in Nature Medicine (subscription required) on experimental vaccines to help treat addiction. These vaccines work by triggering your immune system to detect and sequester drugs -- nicotine or cocaine, for example -- before they reach the brain and tap into its reward circuits. Nicotine vaccines are in late-stage clinical trials, and will probably be the first to get approved.
Cancer vaccines are also hot right now, and I wrote about the career opportunities in this area for NatureJobs. The first cancer treatment vaccine, called Provenge and manufactured by Seattle-based biotech Dendreon, is marketed for the treatment of late-stage prostate cancer. The treatment is expensive ($93,000), but it looks like Medicare plans to cover it. Perhaps for Dendreon, and the many scientists plugging away on their own cancer vaccines, the jobs are here to stay.
For this month's issue of The Scientist, I talked to researchers who are finding new--and sometimes unconventional-- biological indicators of disease. Like analyzing the breath of children to see whether it's possible to pick up early signs of asthma. Or scanning the brains of former athletes for metabolites that signal damaged tissue. Check it out.
At Medscape Medical Students, I have been recruiting physicians and medical students to write and have been doing some writing of my own. In particular, I'm writing for a new series called "Students Are Talking About" which allows me to lurk in the Medscape student discussion forums. (I'm not creepy, I promise!) The latest result of my lurkery is a piece on depression in medical school. (You have to have a subscription to access the article, but signing up is free and easy.) It's not big news that many medical students are depressed or burnt out, as I mention in one of my previous posts, but researchers have really started getting a grasp on how having poor emotional health can affect the education of future doctors.
Addiction, cancer, depression. I just realized that I've been working on some super heavy stuff. Perhaps I need to take on a lighter topic?