How to Manage a Research Group

29. June 2012

Jean-luc Doumont

Managing a research group is tricky. Ph.D. programs selectively breed individuals who like nothing better than to do things their own way. How do you manage a group of those—especially when you are one of them yourself?

To make matters worse, group leaders in academia are usually selected for their research achievements, not their leadership abilities. They may not have any natural talent and are unlikely to have been trained for the job. As a result, bad practices propagate by replication, just like viruses. To follow is some advice for getting it right.

Assess yourself. The first step toward self-improvement is probably self-assessment. If you have been leading a group for awhile, systematically question what you are doing and how you are doing it. When in doubt, get feedback from your group members. And if you are just facing the prospect of becoming a group leader, think about how your group leaders have managed you. What did they do that you found useful? What do you wish they would have done differently? Why?

Focus on purposes and strategies, not procedures. Make a list of all you would like to accomplish as a leader of a research group, such as to secure funding, to buy equipment, to attract great people, and to obtain visibility through publications. As always with this kind of exercise, cluster and prioritize the purposes you have thus identified. Then think of the most effective ways to reach your purposes with the means at your disposal.
Strike a balance between maximizing the group’s scientific production, in quantity or quality, and fostering the individual development of group members. If you are too keen on getting a paper accepted, for example, you might be tempted to rewrite large parts of a student’s imperfect manuscript. Unfortunately, this student is unlikely to learn much from having his or her work redrafted. Students will learn more if you can identify what is suboptimal in the manuscript and explain why; then let them attempt the rewriting themselves.

Striking a balance applies to decision-making, too. If your leadership style is participative, you probably work hard to reach a consensus on decisions, but you may have experienced the process as slow and the decisions as unsatisfactory. In contrast, if you are more of an authoritarian, you likely prefer to decide everything yourself; however, your group members may resent never being involved. A compromise may be to encourage everyone’s input in a group discussion and then decide yourself on the basis of this discussion. Whatever you do, make sure that the rules of the game are clear: Lack of clarity is even worse than unpopular (but clear) rules.

Nurture your group. Managing a group of young researchers is not unlike parenting—another job for which very few of us have been prepared. At times, you may have little availability, leaving your children to figure things out on their own. In contrast, when you want something done fast and well, you may prefer to do it yourself.  You are busy enough as it is and don’t need another mess.

Still, to learn and grow, your children need opportunities. They need guidance and supervision—not too much (leave place for discovery and initiative) and not too little (make sure they learn efficiently and safely). You may well know better what is good for them, but you might still listen to them before deciding. Similarly, you may insist that they obey the rules, yet allow them to challenge them.

Like parents with their children, group leaders should help young researchers along on the path to independence. If you are managing a group, are you doing everything you can so your members can soon become leaders of their own?

Jean-luc Doumont ( holds a Ph.D. in applied physics from Stanford University. He now devotes his time and energy to training researchers and others in effective communication. He is a traveling lecturer for OSA.

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Marketing Your Science Using Mobile Barcodes

22. June 2012

Marc Kuchner

Mobile barcodes are the latest marketing fad. See an ad for your favorite rock band with a square barcode in the corner? Scan it in with your cell phone, and up pops the band’s website; the video rolls and the music starts playing. A mobile barcode transforms any visible surface into an internet gateway, helping potential customers find information, purchase products—even get free mp3s.

The popular QR (quick response) code was invented by a Toyota subsidiary called Denso-Wave; that one looks like pattern of black-and-white squares. Microsoft has its own proprietary mobile barcode system, simply called “tag.” The Microsoft codes contain colored triangles. Each type of barcode can be used to call up several different kinds of content: a URL, some text, a phone number or an SMS message. You can make the barcodes yourself for free on several websites, including and

How can we scientists take advantage of this new marketing tool?

Connect with your colleagues by giving out your phone number via barcode. You can display the code wherever people might go to look for your contact information. Barbara Rojas-Ayala, a graduate student at Cornell, told me, “I put one in my website because people are obsessed with their smartphones. If someone wants my info in his/her phone, they can have it easily with the QR code.” I might try putting one on my business card—or maybe even my CV if I’m feeling brave.

Use the barcodes on scientific posters. I like the idea of using barcodes on posters partly because it reminds us what a poster ought to be: an invitation to investigate further. Rojas-Ayala says that her partner, who is also an astronomer, saw a QR code on a beer bottle and thought it was a good idea for posters. Instead of printing 20-30 copies of the poster on letter-size paper with small figures, small characters, etc., they opted to add the QR code with all their professional info and a link to a PDF of the poster.

Katy Meyers, a graduate student in the department of anthropology at Michigan State University, tried a similar experiment at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. She found that her website received about 30 more hits on the days when her poster was hanging.

Using barcodes for marketing materials. A mobile barcode might also have a place on a different kind of conference poster. When I organized a scientific conference this past fall, I figured I would try adding a QR tag to the poster we are using to advertise. People saw the poster when they were roaming the hallways—in other words, when they had their cell phones handy but not a computer. 

Be sensitive to non-mobile users. Of course, not everyone is excited about mobile barcodes yet. University of Maryland grad student Jessica Donaldson told me, “It is kind of annoying if you don’t have a smartphone.” With this in mind, I shrank the image of the QR code and pasted it into the lower right corner of the poster, where it wouldn’t offend scientists who don’t have the technology.

Scientists can sometimes be resistant to new marketing concepts. It is our calling, after all, to get to the bottom of things, so we sometimes fear new communication tools until we’re sure we understand them enough to trust them. And it’s not yet clear how important this tool will ultimately become for us.

But so far I’ve found QR tags make memorable little conversation pieces. Even if they aren’t being used, they help me engage with my colleagues when I show them the poster. Often, that’s half the battle. As it says in the classic marketing book, Cluetrain Manifesto, markets are conversations—and anything that helps you start one can help you market your science.

This post is adapted from content that first appeared on the Postdocs Forum and Marketing for Scientists with the kind permission of the author.

 Marc J. Kuchner ( is an astrophysicist at NASA, a country songwriter, and the author of the book Marketing for Scientists: How To Shine In Tough Times. His website can be found at

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What I Learned by Serving on a Committee

15. June 2012

Ahmed Kablan

For the past eight months, I have had the privilege of working on the committee to organize the 5th annual NIH Career Symposium. Serving on the planning committee was a valuable experience, both personally and professionally. Below are some of the key things that I learned by volunteering as a committee member.

The importance of teamwork and time management.

It is crucial to communicate clearly with your team to avoid duplication of effort. My time management skills have improved, resulting in increased productivity. By learning to prioritize the issues at hand and work with a team, my life seems more manageable.

To practice leadership skills at all times.

You don’t have to be in a leadership position to build your leadership skills. Each one of us had the chance to take the lead on a certain issue and bring new ideas to the group.

To step out of my comfort zone.

Getting out of the lab, talking to other fellows, and doing a different kind of work helped me to discover skills I didn’t know I had. I learned that I could communicate my complex science in simple language. I also saw how skills that I had learned in the lab were applicable in other settings. These included planning a project, explaining it to the other key players, justifying the resources needed to complete the project, and communicating effectively with people of broad educational backgrounds.

How to build a network and witness why it is important.

You have heard it a million times, but networking is an important skill to develop. What is not always apparent is how easy it can be. Attending the Career Symposium social events was a great way to connect with the speakers and other attendees. The atmosphere was relaxed and everyone was there to network. I was able to see how we as a committee had used our network to make this event happen. The success of the Symposium relied on the ability of committee members and staff to identify potential speakers and invite them to come. Our networking skills helped us to put together dynamic and valuable panels.

The value of using social media effectively.

I have used LinkedIn more in the past few months than I did in the first six years after I signed up for it. I used it to advertise and start discussions around the information presented at the Career Symposium.

Giving back is highly rewarding.

Working on the committee to organize the NIH Career Symposium was also personally fulfilling. I have benefitted firsthand from a previous symposium, so by participating in this committee I hoped to help others find similar career guidance.

This post is based on content that was originally published on the OITE Career Blog, which is produced by the Office of Intramural Training and Education at the National Institutes of Health. It is reproduced with the kind permission of the author and the OITE Career Blog team. We hope that Ahmed’s compelling reasons to serve on a committee will help convince our readers to join a volunteer committee at OSA or another scientific organization.

Ahmed Kablan ( is a postdoc at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) in Bethesda, Md., U.S.A.

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Reflecting on Career/Life Balance

11. June 2012

Jannick Rolland

For many of us, work provides a way to contribute to society, and it is often a significant component of our lives. Unfortunately, it has become increasingly difficult to keep up with the demands of a career in today’s highly competitive landscape. Working in academia, for example, requires one to have the skills of running a small business. Besides teaching and serving our universities and professional societies, we must seek funding and support our graduate students.

At the same time, many of us are also charged with the demands of raising a family or caring for elderly loved ones. As our lifestyles become more complex, all of us—whether men or women—must develop strategies to balance our career with our personal lives. As a single parent of two for part of my journey, I have had to forge my own path.

For me, the most challenging aspect of being a working parent is the travel required to be successful on the job. These days, the option to seek help from a family member is not always there. I chose early on to explore a different model for pursuing my career in science and raising happy and successful children. I wanted my children to develop as happy, creative, independent and successful human beings regardless of their less-than-optimal circumstances at that point in time. 

Sacrificing my professional work to cook dinner and tuck them into bed every night was not realistic, and it was not the best way for me to meet my goals for them or me. I gave up on being “the perfect parent” and instead developed alternative ways of supporting my children—by raising them in an environment in which they could engage with a large pool of adults whom I trusted.

I believe that a family is happiest when each member of it is engaged in the activities that fulfill them the most. Both parents and children are most likely to thrive in an environment that is not only nurturing but stimulating.    

Giving children the chance to interact with people from diverse cultures is of tremendous value. As a scientist, I work with young professionals who are often single or who have limited social lives, particularly if they are working in a country far from their original home. These young professionals are typically more than happy to engage outside the work environment.

My children built relationships with many of my colleagues and students, who became part of our family. I think that is why my older son chose to visit a mosque with a Muslim graduate student at age 14 and why he decided to spend the summer in Seoul, South Korea, at 19 after having developed a strong friendship with one of my Korean students.

Another way I balanced my life and career was by making sure that I deeply connected with family in spite of our time-challenged lives away from my native home of France. In our case, this meant spending some summers abroad, with the goal of helping the children become bilingual. I thought that, by learning French, they could develop their family ties, better understand diversity, and learn to adapt to change. In addition to summers abroad, I took a full-year sabbatical in France when they turned 9 and 11. I conducted science while also connecting with family. 

While it was surely challenging for the children to spend a year away from home, it turned out to be a wonderful experience for them, and they are both thanking me for it today. They developed enduring friendships, and they are both fluent in French. 

Balance isn’t about counting the hours spent at home vs. work; it is about the value we create when we are faced with challenges. What will leave a positive long-term imprint on our children’s minds and their attitudes towards life? 

These days, balance comes a bit easier. In 2009, I remarried my dream partner, and I try to live every day to the fullest. Engineering and science are my passions, but I also like sharing dinners and conversing with friends from all walks of life. And I dearly love laughing with my children. This is my new balance.  

Jannick Rolland ( is the Brian J. Thompson professor of optical engineering at the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester, N.Y., U.S.A.


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Three Roadblocks to a Successful Science Career

1. June 2012

Aida Baida Gil

In my experience as a scientist and a career coach, I’ve come to understand three roadblocks that could have a huge impact on your scientific career, the decisions you make, and your overall satisfaction. Here I describe them with some suggestions for overcoming them.

Letting others define success for you

Many believe that, in order to be a successful scientist, you must be well known, publish hundreds of papers in high-impact journals, and put aside your personal life. There are two problems with this definition. First, as Sheryl Sandberg mentioned in her magnificent TED talk, you might be tempted to “leave before you leave” – meaning that you won’t consider moving forward in your career because you don’t expect to make it, or you think you’ll have to sacrifice a lot. And number two, the pressure is so high that you don’t even consider other options. And so, you just move with the crowd, following the path you think you’re “supposed” to take.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that definition of scientific success, but it doesn’t have to be yours. Only you can decide what you want and how you define success, whether it entails winning a Nobel prize or balancing your work with other aspects of your life. There is no right or wrong decision. What’s important is that you feel satisfied with your choices.

You also don’t have to make all your career decisions right now. You can tackle them when the moment comes. None of us really knows what the future holds, do we? So there is no point in deciding during graduate school that you don’t want to pursue a scientific career because you plan to have children 10 years from now. Cross that bridge when you get there. Meanwhile, do what you really want right now.

Deeming yourself an impostor

In an article in a psychology journal, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes define the imposter syndrome as an inability to accept your own success. It’s the feeling that tells you that you are not as good as everyone thinks you are, that all your lab mates are smarter and that you ended up where you are by chance—not because you are intelligent, smart and capable. These feelings are very frequent in brilliant people, and they can jeopardize your career. Your lack of confidence might lead you to reject opportunities because you don’t feel like you measure up.

If you have this problem, work on your confidence and take comfort in the fact that almost everyone feels this way at one point or another. Fortunately, in most cases, it passes as you gain more experience.

Feeling like a failure

Lastly, I’d like to talk about an obstacle that is very frequent in scientists who decide to leave academia: feeling like a failure. This often happens even if your new job is related to science in some way. That makes the decision very painful, and in some cases it can even prevent people from making a move. Why?

• You feel that leaving academia is not what you’re “supposed to do” after investing so many years in it.
• You don’t think you can do anything else.
• You fear you may regret the decision.
• Changing careers equals failing in your mind. “Everyone” knows that if you leave academic science, you must not be good at it, right? NO!

I’ve been through all those stages, and if you are in this situation, you’ll probably go through them too. It’s normal and it will pass. Keep in mind:

• A career is not a life sentence. You can change your mind and experience different things.
• Changing careers does not mean you’re not good enough; it shows that you are braver than the rest and good at more than one thing!
• You are not your job. It’s easy to identify yourself with your job, and then feel as if you have lost your identity if you change jobs. But you are much more than a job title.

Finally, remember that feeling like a failure is something we all go through, and it can actually be a sign of something positive. I recently read a blog post by the marketing expert Marie Forleo that summarizes it perfectly. She said:

“Feeling like a failure is a natural part of becoming a success. It’s actually a good thing and means you’re taking action and putting yourself out there. Which is WAY more than most critics and naysayers have the balls to do.”

Being aware of these three roadblocks is the first step toward moving past them. What do you think? Have you experienced any of them yet?

This post is adapted from content that first appeared on the Agora blog with the kind permission of the author.

Aida Baida Gil is a certified coach and former geneticist. She helps scientists and professional women around the world to decide the next step in their careers and to make career changes. You can contact her at


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