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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