Career advice: how to lead a research team

Five top European academics offer advice on how to mentor, manage and expand a research team

December 1, 2016
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Leading a research team is one of the toughest tasks in academia. Here, five senior research heads offer their top tips on making it as a principal investigator.

Rudi Balling
Director of the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine, University of Luxembourg

Always think about keeping the members of your team happy. Show them appreciation, care for them and respect that they might be different.

Think about how you wanted to be treated by your boss when you were a student. [US scientist] David Altshuler once said: "Nobody works for me. I work for them” – this is something every leader should internalise.

Something that is still painful for me is when young people who had all the freedom to develop and who had a long leash turn into dictators as soon as the leash is cut.

Bob Siegerink
Head of the clinical epidemiology team at the Center for Stroke Research in Berlin, who is based at Charité Universitätsmedizin Berlin

Organise an environment in which you can learn, preferably with regular feedback and mentoring. Some universities have formal mentor programmes, but I just make sure that I have more experienced researchers whom I can ask for advice and feedback.

Discuss issues around setting up your own team with friends who are not in academia. Starting your own research team sounds as if it is very different from what your friends that studied business, law or even art are doing, but, let’s be honest, it is just the first career move into middle management.

Sharing stories and comparing notes helps me to better understand academia and what I can do to improve myself and the team.

Wendy Ayres–Bennett
Professor of French philology and linguistics, University of Cambridge, who is leading a £3.2 million Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project on multilingualism

Make sure you [budget for] sufficient, good-quality administrative support for the research project because there are always a lot of personnel and organisational issues that need constant monitoring and chasing. Without such support, you find yourself with little time to pursue your own research agenda.

If international partners are involved, it is also important to be clear from the outset what the obligations are in terms of outputs and outcomes. They may not feel the same urgency as you without the pressure of being answerable to a funder or the obligations of the research excellence framework.

Stephanie Haywood
Director of the Centre for Adaptive Science and Sustainability and head of electrical and electronic engineering at the University of Hull

The first problem is growing your team. This will often begin with just a PhD student and you, in a new and unfamiliar institution, so find a mentor and a role model. Look around you and see who is running a successful research group and doing it in a way that you would be happy to emulate. Mentors are often assigned to new staff, but don’t be afraid to find your own unofficial ones – they usually work best.

If you are lucky, there will be supportive senior colleagues willing to help, advise and provide an extended research family for you and your embryonic research group to draw upon as you expand. Take all that is offered in this respect. Don’t feel you have to prove your independence by going it alone from the outset.

The most difficult change from being a researcher to a lecturer is probably that, by necessity, teaching takes priority several days a week in term time. Research rarely reaches quite the same level of urgency, so prioritise research for specific days every week and stick to it as firmly as you can.

It helps greatly to have self-motivated PhD students and post-docs knocking on your door with problems for you to solve and results they want to discuss. So recruit carefully and then encourage your team to disturb you – it really drives the research forward.

Robert MacIntosh
Head of the School of Social Sciences, Heriot-Watt University

Moving from sole trader to plc status is not something that everyone achieves gracefully.

With the transition to any managerial role, the trick is to avoid micro-managing to the point where you are doing everyone else’s job for them. Try to remember what level of competence you had at the point in your career when you hadn’t done much.

Without being trite, focus on feedback that will help members of your research team to realise where they’re not hitting the standard required and do so early, often and optimistically.

Above all, try to avoid “when I was at your stage” rants, or at least reserve them for therapy with colleagues when off campus.

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