One of the things most academics get little if any training on is how to build a well-functioning team. Yet this is also without doubt one of the most important aspects of a career in academia. Here I share some ideas on what I have found works for me over the years.




Laying the foundations

For many academics it becomes clear that to progress with the ideas they have, help is needed.  However, at an early career stage, it is often not easy to get funds for a research assistant. I have found that various forms of exchange work well! You might offer supervision (e.g. of a masters student) in exchange for help with data collection. Or you might offer the addition of a measure to the study, and/or authorship on the resultant paper(s) in exchange for support with analysis or data management. One longitudinal twin study I ran, with very little funding, over more than 15 years, never had any funding for data management. This was undertaken by a fantastic colleague in exchange for adding measures he was interested in, to each wave of data collection. Usually, by using these sorts of exchanges, you can get yourself started and create the pilot data you need to begin bringing in funds for research assistants and doctoral students.

What help do you need?

Another important point to consider when you realise you need help, is which tasks you wish to delegate. Do you need help with lab-work, or with data collection? Or are you struggling more to get administrative tasks done? When do you need the work to be done? If you are clear on these sorts of questions that can really help with deciding in what direction to look for some help. I have found that for support with administrative tasks, it works very well to get undergraduate placement students into the team each year. These students contribute to the daily running of the team, supporting me with general admin, but also get to take part in more research intensive activities such as data collection, coding, and analyses.


Picking the right person

I mentioned in a previous blog that one of the most important lessons I have learned from a long term colleague and mentor of mine, is to work with people you get on with. There are plenty of smart people out there, but it works so much better if you also like one another. For me, having team members who are generous and willing to engage fully in the give-and-take atmosphere of the group is essential. Almost everyone will find at least one element of academic training particularly difficult, and it is so much nicer if they can gain support from peers in this – not just from their supervisor.  Having seen first-hand how just one less sensitive and generous individual can really change the feel of things, I have for years been extremely careful who I will allow in, and I now get team members to meet with new potential recruits to help in the selection process.

Providing training

Before bringing anyone into the group I always reflect on what training they will need and who will provide this. Sometimes, particularly when I first started supervising, this would almost all be provided by me. However, as I have progressed in my career, it has become increasingly important to bring in co-supervisors who are running relevant analyses far more often than me, and who can offer technical support. I am also a huge believer in peer support, and many students in this department learn as much from each other as they do from any of the academic staff.

The other useful resource for training is courses. Often there will be many that are freely available within the university, but others may need to be paid for, so then it is a question of planning how and where to get the funds from. When possible it is great if the student can gain a travel award as these enhance their CVs as well as allowing them to attend something they might otherwise not have been able to go to.

Getting started

I think the most risky period with any team member is when they first begin. I have found that it helps if you are very clear about your expectations, and make sure that the new team member knows exactly what their role is within the group and how that links with the work undertaken by others. I ask new members of my team to email me notes after each of our meetings so I can be sure we have both taken away the same understanding of what was discussed, and to help me remember what we have covered when I look back. I also find it useful to schedule regular meetings, as I am in general not very keen on impromptu meetings. I also try to be clear early on how quickly I will usually respond, and I ask that anything we will look at in a meeting be sent to me at least 2 days ahead, so I have time to read it and be prepared. This way the time we have together can be really productive.

Nurturing the team

When I first had a team, we all worked on a single project and each week we had a meeting about the project. However, as my team grew, and the number of projects underway increased, I found that the only person who really knew how it all fitted together was me. I discussed this with a post-doc who had just started working with me and she suggested we have weekly meetings of the whole group. This has been fantastic, as everyone now sees how all the different elements fit together, and several members of the team in the subsequent few years have commented on how much they valued these meetings. We tend to discuss either the current work one of us is doing (e.g. recent analyses) or a paper that is relevant to our interests. Having group lunches from time to time and heading out together in the evenings, also add to the sense of being part of a team, and are really good fun!

Leading by example

Finally, I have learned over the years that there are certain behaviours which people value highly, such as being listened to, and being provided with fair, constructive feedback (even if negative). None of us like being criticised, and the early stages of an academic career are littered with opportunities for rejection which many find very hard. That said, when given in a supportive and respectful fashion, negative feedback can be very useful, and is sometimes essential. Far better to hear from you that a paper just isn’t ready to be submitted than waste 3 months waiting to hear that from a journal editor.

“I want everyone in the group to feel appropriately recognised for the work they do, and to progress in their careers as they should”

The other key thing for me is fairness. We all know that in some groups or departments, people can end up not being recognised for what they have done, and in my view, the best way to stop this happening is to lead by example. I commonly now share senior authorship with earlier career researchers who are co-supervising with me, and at times it is appropriate for me just to be somewhere in the middle. I want everyone in the group to feel appropriately recognised for the work they do, and to progress in their careers as they should. I heard a suggestion recently that when senior PIs are assessed, their CV should proclaim the achievements of their team members to show their ability to nurture and launch the next generation. I love this idea, and without exception am extremely proud of the progress every PhD student and post-doc of mine has made after leaving my group, and greatly enjoy continuing to work with many of them.


[Ed. – …and you can join the team! Check out the job advert for a new research worker position]


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Thalia Eley

Author Thalia Eley

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