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“…You’re taught how to be a scientist, you’re not taught how to be a lab manager.”

Researchers have many responsibilities in their work, such as:

  • Orchestrating the talents of research team members
  • Maintaining good working relationships
  • Ensuring the rigor and reproducibility of the data produced in their labs
  • Adhering to ethical standards and regulatory rules

The need for investigators to engage in leadership and management behaviors to successfully execute these responsibilities is often overlooked. This need is also given limited attention in the training of investigators. In a previous interview study of 32 NIH-funded genetic researchers, we learned that nearly all participants (97%) considered effective leadership and management the most important skills – besides scientific expertise – necessary for success in research. However, a mere 10% felt prepared for these responsibilities at the start of their careers.


Although leadership is essential to good research done with integrity, we know very little about it!

“If I look back…and I look at the single thing that I’ve screwed up the most it would be… management practices, and execution.”


We sought to interview of cadre of principal investigators (PIs) who lead teams producing high-quality, high-impact, federally-funded research in any scientific discipline. Furthermore, we sought PIs with outstanding reputations for professionalism and integrity in research.

We reached out to nearly 1,500 administrators at Carnegie-classified research-intensive universities, the NIH Office of Intramural Research, and medical schools and schools of public health in the U.S. Each nominee needed at least two nominations; most secondary nominations came from colleagues or research collaborators. The final group of 52 Research Exemplars was selected from 74 nominations by a peer review committee. On average, nominators had known Research Exemplars for 12 years.

Nominees were described as:

“He has a level of energy and vision that are very inspiring. I know of almost no scientist that is quite like him… I know of no scientist who is as clever and who has the breadth and depth of interests that he possesses.”
“She is a methodical and careful investigator, who replicates her findings several times before ever considering publication.”
“He is one of the most sincere, hardworking and ethical scientists it has ever been my pleasure to meet… He is hands down one of most impressive individuals I know. Not only as a scientist and leader, but as a person.”


We conducted hour-long, semi-structured telephone interviews guided by an interview script with 18 questions. Exemplars were asked about their work practices, professional habits, and career experiences. The interviews were transcribed and analyzed by the project team using qualitative coding software to identify key themes.

600 Number of single-spaced pages of narrative data generated by interviews.

  • Habits and practices in leading & managing their labs
  • Social responsibilities & ethical issues
  • Approaches to managing workload & stress
  • Experiences & lessons that shaped their careers

Exemplars’ responses to the interviews:

“I’m just very curious…and look forward to seeing what the end product [of this research] is going to be.”
“I think it’s nice that you’re doing this to…gather [this] kind of information… Yes, it’s a good thing that you’re doing.”
“Let me thank you…for what you do for all of us. It’s deeply appreciated.”