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Before You Lead: 6 Core Principles When Managing a Research Group

Written by: Alaina G. Levine
Published on: May 26, 2015

Congratulations! You are managing a research group. Perhaps you have just landed your first professorial post and are launching your group now. Maybe you have been leading a group for some time in a government or corporate lab. Or perhaps you are currently a postdoc or graduate student and are contemplating how you will manage a group when given the chance in the future. In any case, managing a team is both a very challenging and very rewarding endeavor. It takes time and physical, mental, and capital resources to effectively manage and lead a team to triumph. It requires both a holistic attitude and a detail orientation, and it takes exceptional communication and strategic planning skills on your part to ensure your team is meeting (and hopefully exceeding) your expectations.

Your team has the amazing potential for greatness, but the buck stops with you. As its leader, you are responsible and accountable for all its actions and outputs, so it is vital that you build an ecosystem that gives your members the chance to shine. Whether you strive to build from scratch a new group, or reorganize an existing one, there are a few foundational principles of group management that you must recognize, and quite honestly, take very seriously. You must remember that your research group:

  1. Exists to advance specific research goals: These goals include your own, obviously, since you are the manager, but can and should also incorporate your protégés’ (i.e. your postdocs’ and students’) and colleagues’ goals as you grow your program. The group must have a specific strategy as to how these goals will be met, with timelines, deadlines, deliverables, resources that need to be acquired and utilized, and proper protocols to measure success. These elements form the basis of a successful managed group. If you find that the group is floundering, it might be because the goals have not been clearly communicated, or there are precise obstacles that are causing failure. As the group leader, it is your obligation to get your group back on track, make certain it knows what the objectives are, and do what you can to eliminate any barriers to achieving victory. 


  1. Contributes to the success of the department, institution and field: With every breakthrough made by you and your group, you are not only solidifying your own brand (promise of value) and enhancing your own reputation, but you are also contributing to and amplifying the reputation of your department and institution. Your group’s research outputs help your colleagues in your department to think about their research in new ways. Furthermore, with every paper your group publishes, every talk your group members give, and every committee, workshop, conference your group participates in, you are adding something novel to the field, ultimately helping it to advance in innovative manners. This is not to be taken lightly.
  1. Serves as a training opportunity for students and postdocs: A research group in academia is not unlike an internship program in industry. Your protégés, those who report to you, i.e. your postdocs and students, are there not only to get the work done and conduct the research to serve the goals of the research group, but also to receive entry level training in how to be a research scientist. They are not to be considered “staff” who are there only to do your bidding. Rather, they should be given responsibilities and tasks that allow them to gain better insight into the field, learn and hone new skills, and develop abilities that can ultimately enable them to lead their own team. You should give them opportunities to suggest topics and lead projects (commiserate with their level of experience). You should encourage them to seek outside professional development opportunities, such as courses and workshops, as well as leadership experiences, such as serving on a committee within your/their professional association or an institutional committee such as the postdoc association. You can expect they will make mistakes. But since this is a training program, you should be ready to handle those errors in a respectful and responsible way that doesn’t negatively impact the group’s focus, or the individual’s self-esteem. In other words, if mistakes occur, discuss them privately with the individual and explore how the mistake can be turned into a learning lesson to ensure success the next time around.   


  1. Gives you the opportunity to hone and demonstrate your leadership capacity: Just as your students and postdocs are developing better leadership skills within the context of your group, so too are you honing, and indeed, demonstrating to the community your own leadership abilities. And just as you are watching your protégés, you too are being watched by the community to see what you do with your research group. Specifically, your scientific colleagues are observing how your group functions, what outputs it produces, and how it contributes to science and your discipline. It is important for you to “manage” the group successfully, but it is even more important for you to “lead” the group to success. So make certain that you understand not only principles of project and team management, which include resource, budget, and staff oversight, but also how to effectively lead. A leader is one who clarifies purpose, inspires trust, aligns the system so there’s no conflict between what you say is important and what you measure, enables professional development, and empowers the team by creating experiences that harness and unleash individuals’ talents, all of which serves to achieve the overarching objectives. Lead your team members and they will appreciate it and will be motivated to work hard and do good science. If you are unsure of your own leadership abilities, seek out opportunities to strengthen them, whether it is via a class, a frank discussion with your mentor on what you can improve, or reading appropriate books and articles about how to develop your skills. Your team will thank you for your effective leadership, in that they will be cohesive and clarified and focused on your goals and related outputs. And your colleagues, both in and beyond the borders of your institution, will take note of how successful you and your team are.


  1. Has a culture that will determine how others view you: When outsiders visit your group, do they find postdocs screaming at each other over who can use the rock cutting machine first? Do they witness grad students in the corner crying? Do they sense that your team operates in an ecosystem of fear and domination? It goes without saying that none of these negative attributes should be associated with you and your group. And yet, I am sure you have visited labs, perhaps while you were early in your career or even later after you launched your own group, where negative, inappropriate attitudes amongst the team and its leader where evident. You cannot risk that any negativity be associated with you and your group. And since the buck always stops with you, the group’s leader, it is imperative that, from the very moment you establish your group, you communicate what your values are and how they will be woven into the group’s day-to-day activities and goals. You must ensure that your group is respectful of its members and each person’s ideas, and that its culture is one that supports and encourages an open exchange of concepts. If your group members don’t feel that they can come to you with a problem or can admit a mistake that they made, then your entire enterprise risks falling apart. The culture of the group is its glue, so make absolutely certain that you strategically design an environment that can lead to success. And remember if you endeavor to expand your group and continue your investigations in the future, you will need to recruit new members. If your group culture is one that is associated with negativity, you won’t be able to accomplish your objectives because you won’t be able to attract top talent.


  1. Has outputs that are directly tied to your brand and reputation: Everything that is produced by your research group is reflective of you and your leadership abilities. This is not such a foreign notion – after all, as a group leader, your name will be on all of your protégés’ papers, posters and presentations, and you will be affiliated with everything that comes out of the group. Furthermore, as the group’s mentor, your name, and brand and reputation, has the potential to be attached to anything any of your protégés do in the future as well. So be mindful that as you cultivate your group members’ abilities and encourage them to pursue interesting projects, that their success or failure will be tied to your reputation. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t encourage blue sky ideas for fear of failure. Rather, you should just be aware that you hold great power as the group leader to impact your protégés’ career opportunities, just as your protégés hold great power to influence your own professional advancement. Don’t take this lightly. You want to build a symbiotic relationship with your team, one that is mutually-beneficial and will ultimately help to enhance and amplify everyone’s brand and reputation in your scientific community and beyond.

Alaina G. Levine is Author of Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2015) and President of Quantum Success Solutions, a career consulting and professional speaking enterprise dedicated to the career advancement of scientists, engineers, and non-nerds too. Contact her at and follow her @AlainaGLevine.