Want to get on in research? You need to manage people effectively

From supervisors to friends and family, the key to success is organising the people around you, says Ellie King

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5 Oct 2021
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The secret to success as a researcher at universities is the ability to manage people

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One of the most crucial, but often overlooked, keys to success in research is being organised. And yes, I mean organised in the sense of keeping your files in a nice, neat order (and not naming everything “draft number x”). But there’s also a further hidden key: organising the people around you.

Now, I’m not advocating you become an evil genius, planning to take over your university by manipulating everyone you know without them even realising. It’s just about managing and understanding the working relationships around you at your research institution and beyond.

My PhD involves four supervisors from two institutions, which feels like a lot. And beyond that, there’s a host of people who help make my research happen. For the record, I look at visitor experience in museums, so as well as being a student at the University of Warwick, I’m also a researcher at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. My data is people, so I’ve learned a fair bit about how to get the best out of them.

Managing expectations
Of course, four supervisors does not mean four people who want exactly the same thing from me and my research. At the start of your research, or whenever someone assumes a supervisory role, make the time to work out this relationship. Obviously, it needs to build organically, but over three or so months it’s good to establish what they want from you and what you want from them.

One may be great at dealing with admin-related issues such as funding, extensions and submissions. One may be better with day-to-day research questions, while another might have an eye for strategic direction. But don’t forget that this relationship works two ways.

Obviously, your supervisors will also be very interested in the outputs you produce and where your research goes. This can be slightly more difficult to manage, as academic egos can influence discussions about which research to undertake. In this situation, which can get sticky, listen patiently but stand firm in coming to your own conclusions.

If you’re a PhD student, it’s your research at the end of the day. I’ve also found that enthusiasm helps to quell the tide of overbearing seniors.

By setting out these plans early, everyone’s expectations can be managed in terms of roles within the research team. By asserting a bit of authority over your own work (but not in an arrogant or hostile way) and by spending time building effective and meaningful relationships, you’re more likely to have a successful research journey in which problems can be ironed out fairly easily.

On a much more basic level, expectations also need to be managed in terms of how often meetings occur, how long people have to reply to emails, what the turnaround on work is and more. Again, agree these early, ensure everyone is on the same page and keep talking.

Also, always remember that you’re in control, especially of meetings. Plan a rough agenda of what you want to talk about, and if you need someone to prepare something in particular make sure you’ve let them know. Chair the meeting and lead its direction with enthusiasm. You’re working with busy people, so handing everything they need to them on a plate is massively helpful. You need to be the one taking the initiative.

The wider team

Your research will also involve working with a wider team of people who are important, but not as close, to your research. This could be admin staff at your institution, people who help with funding, those who provide more pastoral support, colleagues associated with your work, even your family and friends.

Maintaining effective and friendly relationships with all of them is crucial for both your success and your well-being. And just like your supervisor team, it’s helpful to work out who does what in this wider team too. These people will be working to different schedules, deadlines, priorities, even sectors, so knowing them and working around them is vital to getting on.

For my museum research, I need to work to the deadline of the exhibition schedules, and ethics approval only comes around every so often, so I need to be ready with my applications. No matter which colleagues (or friends) you need support from, make sure you contact them with plenty of time to spare.

Making it a success

These principles have really helped me provide structure, support and certainty to my research. It means I can get on with researching the important stuff, and it’s easier to smooth things over when they go wrong.

One tool I find really useful is the power-interest grid used in project management. By plotting everyone involved in your work along these two axes, based on how much power they have and how much interest they have in your project, you can more easily understand who needs to be monitored, kept satisfied, kept informed or worked with closely.

Being a researcher is not only about research, and people management is one of the keys to success. Take the time to build on this skill so that it is done effectively and to your benefit – as well as everyone else’s. If done right, you’ll be a joy to work with.

Ellie King is a doctoral researcher at the University of Warwick and Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Her work explores the user experience of exhibitions, and she conducts visitor evaluation and exhibition development practices for cultural and heritage sites across the UK.


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