Careers intelligence: how to support new research leaders

Four lab leaders explain how universities can help academics in the early days of running their first research group

January 24, 2019
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The initial excitement of finally leading a research group is quickly followed by the daunting realisation that the clock is now ticking.

First-time principal investigators have limited time to apply for grants and awards, to recruit research colleagues and to publish. But junior scientists such as ourselves have pursued careers in academia because we are passionate about research – we were less prepared to handle other tasks that come with leading a research group. Based on our experiences, here are some measures that could help early career group leaders to succeed.

Start on the front foot
Research leaders are selected for their position based on scientific merit. Most have little experience of managing a team, mentoring, writing grants, acting in an academic leadership role and even teaching. They often come from a different institute or country, making them unfamiliar with the regulations and working culture of their host institution.

Employers should establish a timeline for allocating finance and laboratory space to avoid any confusion. Good communication with key personnel in administration, IT, human resources and finance departments is also crucial.

An informal meeting or a seminar for the whole department can help faculty members to interact with the institute’s research community.

Define expectations
Having a clear account of expected teaching loads, administrative duties and leadership tasks is vital. It will avoid arguments over whether duties have been distributed fairly, but it also ensures that everyone is on the same page. This is very important for joint and affiliate appointments to two or more departments.

Institutions must be careful not to load young principal investigators with administrative duties. Research leaders have a vested interest in saying “yes” to additional duties in what could be their long-term intellectual home. But committee and administrative work inevitably distracts from research, training and teaching as they are time- and energy-intensive. Formal policies should ensure that these efforts are recognised appropriately.

Having a well-defined position with transparent expectations and a clear path to the next career stage will also help young faculty members to thrive. Excellent institutions stand out not only for their research and their ability to attract funding, but also for cultivating talent.

Support for funding and recruitment
Recruiting talented postdocs and motivated graduate students is always difficult, particularly for more junior faculty who are not well established.

Institutions can support their recruitment efforts by lending their advertisement channels and by organising recruitment seminars. These bigger platforms draw wider interest among candidates and help to excite prospective students and postdocs about signing up.

Support does not just mean extra money for staff hires either – giving first-time research leaders access to mentors, grant-writing coaches and workshops, especially for non-native English speakers, can help new faculty to secure competitive funding. Critical and constructive feedback from senior faculty is immensely helpful during preparation of the first independent research proposals.

Foster a supportive atmosphere
Many researchers are most productive when they feel part of a community. Taking a leadership role often means losing that feeling, while loneliness can be exacerbated by a move to a new institution or country. Initiatives such as informal faculty lunches can help members of the community to get to know each other better. For instance, Israel’s Weizmann Institute regularly hosts support forums for young group leaders that allow them to discuss issues and share solutions.

An open climate can lead to fruitful in-house collaborations that glue faculty together. New junior faculty will often bring plenty of revitalising energy, new viewpoints, technologies, ideas and concepts, so institutions should embrace this by supporting efforts to create this openness.

Work-life balance
Taking a senior position in academia for the first time often coincides with starting a family, which creates challenges, especially for female scientists. Institutions can adopt policies to help reconcile work and private life, such as offering parental leave and scheduling meetings and seminars during office hours. Providing on-campus housing and childcare is a long-term investment that can be important for recruiting new faculty. And many scientific collaborations have started with scientists chatting at childcare facilities and playgrounds.

Creating a supportive, fair and equal climate for all is in the interests of both an institution and its junior faculty.

The high demand for junior faculty positions and the limited number of posts must not embolden institutions to shirk their responsibilities to develop the talent that they have recruited. After all, the best institutions will always stand out because of the talent they develop.

Ritwick Sawarkar and Martin Denzel are researchers at Max Planck Institutes in Freiburg and Cologne, respectively; Ruth Scherz-Shouval is based at the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Israel; and Juha Saarikangas is a life sciences researcher at the University of Helsinki. This piece is adapted from a paper that recently appeared in the journal EMBO Reports, titled “Chaperoning Junior Faculty”.

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Print headline: Make take‑off a smooth one

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