Several years back I heard someone talking about research administration and the differences between an MD and a PhD. They said, “An MD recognizes a dead person is dead (and deadlines and policies are final), but a PhD tries to talk the dead person back to life (when they hear no–tries to reword the request).”

“An MD recognizes a dead person is dead (and deadlines and policies are final), but a PhD tries to talk the dead person back to life (when they hear no–tries to reword the request).”

To some degree, this is a conversation about the gap between the doctor and the scientist. Sometimes, these two species work side-by-side in a research laboratory or at least in the same building; however, the two have very different working styles, not to mention different philosophies and motivations.

Gap between the Doctor and the Scientist

MDs conducting research are generally both caring and pragmatic—they have seen the devastation disease leaves first hand and have entered into research to solve the problem. PhDs are generally more focused on abstract mechanisms of an abstract disease process, which can make them seem cold and distant to MDs. This doctor-scientist clash is becoming more visible and can be difficult to manage as a research administrator.

The scientists spend their time mastering yet another experiment or finding another way to look at a problem—with enough time nothing is unsolvable. Physicians on the other hand, spend their lives mastering patient care – where symptoms, if not the underlying problem, must be solved and managed quickly with what is available and on-hand.

Even with this simple explanation, you can begin to see the differences between a scientist and a physician. The scientist will want to see all the options and angles to an administrative problem before choosing a plan of action, perhaps at the expense of meeting the deadline. Whereas physicians, will meet the deadline, but may get creative with the solutions they present or actions they take.

For MDs:

  • Deadlines are their strength, be clear and concise
  • Goal-oriented studies are their strength, understand their niche
  • Creativity is their weakness, offer ‘outside-of-the-box’ suggestions during meetings

For PhDs:

  • Creativity and thinking outside of the box is their strength, be specific and keep them on-task
  • Breadth and wide-angle studies are their strength, funnel mini-projects into larger buckets
  • Project management is their weakness, keep deadlines in a visible place

As a research administrator, and a leader, it is important to understand the personality and cultural background of the PIs that you are working with and to respond accordingly.

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