Building and Managing Your Own Research Team

Building and Managing Your Own Research Team

Like most new PIs, you are undoubtedly a bit intimidated by the prospect of having to develop your own research team or set up your own research laboratory.

Reflect on the labs where you have worked in the past. Were those labs well run? What mistakes can you avoid? What successes can you repeat? What practices contributed to a positive and productive work environment?

Your Chair or Director

Try very hard to establish a good relationship with your Chair or Director. This person controls the amount of space and infrastructure available to you, as well as teaching and administrative assignments. In addition, your Chair or Director can provide you with a useful and different point of view on your research program.

Getting Advice

Actively seek mentorship and advice from other more established PIs as you start to establish your research program. Consider doing the following:

  • Ask senior colleagues for advice; they are usually happy to provide it.

  • Use your institution's mentoring programs to formally connect with a suitable mentor.

  • Meet monthly with other junior colleagues or new PIs.

Building Your Team

If you can, contact directly, preferably by phone, all references for technicians, graduate students, etc. At the very least, contact references directly if the reference letter is generic or contains half-hearted recommendations like "This person would work well in the right environment." (This is code for "Call me!").


If you are setting up a lab, technicians are usually your first hire, so advertize for them as soon as possible. It is quite all right to hire someone who has just graduated from university. Recent graduates may stay with you longer (thus providing continuity as your lab grows), and they will bring less experiential bias to your lab.

When you interview potential technicians, administer a quiz to assess their experience and expertise. Ask them to describe their strengths and weaknesses, and verify this information with their previous employer. In addition, ask them to describe research projects with which they have been associated. If they can't articulate the background, rationale and significance to you, at a basic level at least, be wary! Evaluate technicians carefully during the probationary period (usually three to six months). Work with them closely. If their work is not satisfactory, let them go. It is always stressful to end someone's contract, but it will be both stressful and much more difficult to dismiss them after the probationary period. If their work is satisfactory, ask them to make a commitment to you for two to three years. Finally, make it clear to them at the beginning that, if they decide to move on, they should give you as much advance notice as possible, preferably 3-6 months, so that their skills can be transferred to their replacement.

Graduate Students

Graduate students require a special kind of commitment on your part. You have an obligation to train and mentor your graduate students to help them reach their full potential in your lab. Your obligation includes recognizing, over time, which students have potential for a career in science, and which are not cut out for the job.

Post-Doctoral Fellows (PDFs)

If you hire PDFs, remember that they should be capable of functioning at a very high level and that they too can be excellent mentors for your graduate students. At the interview stage, ask potential PDFs to give a presentation to a larger group, and ask the group for feedback. PDFs who are competitive for national funding are likely to be a particular asset to your research team.

It is important to discuss with all prospective PDFs the nature of their career goals. If they definitely aim to become a PI after leaving your lab, they should expect to be able to take a project from your lab to start their careers. This issue must be discussed before you hire them, so that their expectations are not unrealistic, and so that you realize that you must give them a project they can "own" once they leave, if they have done good work with you. Not all good PDFs necessarily want to become a PI, in which case an independent project is not an issue.

Mentoring Your Team

Reflect on how your previous supervisor mentored you. Were you mentored well? Most members of your research team will expect you to mentor them, and that is one of your major roles. If you take this role seriously, you will find that mentoring keen and capable graduate students and PDFs is one of the most rewarding parts of your job.

Some mentoring advice: Adapt to the needs and desires of each student. Every student is different.

Give your students genuine responsibilities and learning opportunities. For example, have your students write the first draft of the paper themselves; have them do the experiment themselves even though you could write the paper or do the experiment better and faster. Then give them feedback to help them improve.

Be a career counsellor. Offer career advice:

  • Tell your students what they must do in order to advance along various possible career paths.

  • Identify career resources and opportunities.

  • Help them network and make contacts in the field.

  • Teach them time management skills.

Remember, it is in your interest to have your team members succeed. Not only will you feel personal pride, but peer review panels take into consideration your ability to produce qualified and successful researchers. Sometimes, after a trainee has been in your lab for several years (and often sooner), it will be clear to you that a career as a PI is not likely to be a good career choice for that individual. In this case, you need to recognize where each person's strengths lie, and guide them appropriately.

Managing Expectiations

Early on, clarify your lab guidelines, financial rules and expectations. Meet individually with each person on your team every few months and set clear, specific and reasonable expectations. You can usually hold these meetings every six months (although some individuals will require more frequent meetings). In particular, remind your graduate students that you expect more of them than you would of undergraduates. They will have to think independently and creatively, not just master techniques. To motivate your graduate students, consider sending them to conferences to become aware of the intensity of other graduate students' commitment and research achievements.

Similarly, manage your team members' expectations of you: at your six-month meetings, ask your team members what they expect from you for the next six months, and discuss whether you can realistically meet their expectations.

Keeping Your Lab Running Smoothly

Being a PI is a human endeavour. Have an open-door policy for both professional and personal matters. Encourage your team members to come see you. When they do, listen and try to help.

Some team members will be reluctant to consult with you, so maintain a physical presence. If you work in a lab, do some experiments at the bench, especially in the first few years. Keep your eyes and ears open for potential problems and conflicts:

  • Is the organizational structure working?

  • Are projects in the hands of the appropriate people?

  • What is frustrating people?

  • Are there personality conflicts?

  • Is anyone experiencing a personal problem?

  • Be open and honest, but never gossip to one student about another.

Also notice the positive things:

  • What are people enjoying?

  • Who gets along well with whom?

Try not to hover — especially with your good students. Tell them what to do and then trust them to do it. Generally speaking, your team members want you around occasionally, but not all the time.

Have team meetings every one or two weeks and insist that all team members attend. Use these meetings to:

  • Keep everyone up-to-date on all of the on-going research.

  • Decide where papers will be published, with whom and when.

  • Discuss staff-related issues (five min- utes per meeting is time well spent).

  • Brainstorm on topics as needed.

  • Avoid misunderstandings and promote intra-team communication.

Instill enthusiasm by being enthusiastic yourself. Convey the message that the research team can make a significant contribution to knowledge. (For inspiration, reread your successful grant application!)

Show enthusiasm for your students' individual work and achievements. For example, having celebrations for newly accepted papers will greatly add to morale.

Good lab sociology can be easily damaged by one "bad apple". If a team member behaves inappropriately, it is your obligation, as the PI, to address the problem. The buck stops with you. You will save both time and aggravation by dealing with problems immediately when they arise. Don't just hope they will go away-they will only amplify, affect others in the lab, and get worse. Call team members into your office individually, articulate to them the impact of their behaviour on the lab, and insist that they act professionally (obey rules, behave civilly, meet expectations, etc.). Be friendly but firm. Never, ever become angry. Communicate your expectations that they will modify their conduct.

Be sure to document the incident(s), and what you told the team member. If the problem persists, consider physically relocating people or helping them find a more suitable position.

If you do not know how to handle a human resources problem, consult with the human resources staff at your institution, and make your department head aware of the difficulty. By taking these two actions, you will begin to work towards a solution, and also protect yourself.

It is in your long-term best interest to be supportive and flexible with your team members. Be particularly supportive if they have health problems (e.g., unwarranted or excessive anxiety, depression). If you take care of your team, you will see the positive effects in your research program. Furthermore, you will develop a positive reputation as a good person to work with, and other students will want to train with you.