Building a Research Team

Academic research is increasingly collaborative across all disciplines. 1,2,3,4 Yet being more collaborative does not necessarily increase productivity – certainly not on a per-author basis.5

Thus, as an ECR or PhD student it is a legitimate question to ask – should I join a team, build a team or go it alone?

Build a team

For many students entry academia their long-term goal, vision or what they picture involves being the leader of a small to medium-sized research team. In my experience small to medium means somewhere between 3 and 30 people. And this would cover students, technicians, assistants, and PostDocs.

Once realised, some researcher shrinks their team to a size they are comfortable with. Others look to grow further and turn their team into a research centre or an institute. They begin to look for funds that cover operational and capital expenses, not just research expenses. Depending on where you are employed when you get to this stage, you might find this kind of funding at your employer (you’ll need to apply). Of course, there are industry opportunities as well as philanthropy,  but I am getting ahead of the topic here. I’m actually only talking about a new graduate looking to build a team.

In my opinion, building a team is different to becoming the head of an existing team – whether that is a centre, institute, department or something else.

But the one thing that is common across all of these head of roles is that people management takes up more, and more of your time. Furthermore, time spent actively researching or analysing is what tends to suffer most. So, if you are keen to manage people and less keen on research, building a team is probably the thing for you. If so, how do you achieve that?

Building a research team? Know that

its composition determines its success,

not just the skills of the individuals.

How to build a research team

Step 1 – Plan

Like anything you set out to do in research, planning is the first step. Although the plan will not make things happen, it will help you measure progress, and keep on track. As a research team or group leader you’ll need to think about managing that team. How many people would you like to manage? What would their roles be? Will all people do research? Or will some undertake administrative tasks that support research or team building. Remember that the larger the team the more time you will spend managing people and personalities rather than doing or managing research. If you don’t like that idea, perhaps consider also having some kind of general manager. If that does not sound like fun, then consider being a team member, rather than leading one.

So – what is the size and scope of the team? And what is your vision of success? Bear in mind that research suggests the optimal size for a team is 6-8 people, that diversity improves productivity, and that opportunities will impact individual team member longevity within the team.6

And of course, planning should also include identifying other resources to help build your group. I found a couple worth looking at:

Step 2 – Get funding

Immediately starting a team and leading it post your PhD will be tough. You’ll need to be seen as a leader by enough people in order to recruit people to your team. You’ll also need to have a strong vision of success to attract people. But, even with those things, the one thing that will be essential will be funding. Just like going it alone you’ll need funding for yourself and the research. In addition, you will need funding for the other team members to cover their research, and salaries.

Step 3 – Have a place to work

All grants and fellowships need an administering organisation. So, you’ll need to have an employer (essentially). This can feel a bit catch-22. But, in the first instance you could apply for these grants and fellowships through the organisation that is administering your PhD or where you work as an ECR. Should you be successful, you can then consider if you stay or leave. Of course, leaving could be seen in a negative light by those you worked with. Staying could mean you never truly achieve independence.

Step 4 – Recruit team members

If it was not already hard enough, this step is where things really get tricky. Many people opt for the referral approach. Friends; friends of friends etc. This can make things hard if it turns out those people are not a good fit for you or each other. Then, of course, you could advertise and interview. This is potentially better as there is no vested interest or history but might just as easily lead to poor team dynamics. You’ll need to match the team to your plans. And that could mean recruiting managers not just researchers. It might also mean you recruit people who can do social media or internet stuff. Not to mention whatever skills are necessary in order to achieve the outcomes you committed to in your fellowship(s) and grant(s) and doing so within the agreed budget.

Step 5 – Do the work

Of course, you’ll need to do the work. But long term sustainability will need to you go through each of these steps (from planning through to recruitment) frequently and regularly. You’ll need to change your plan to match opportunities as well as change who you recruit based on what you set out to achieve. You might even change the team member skill mix based on what you do or don’t like doing or what needs development. Good luck! And as usual, let me know how it goes.

Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email ([email protected]) or subscribe to the newsletter. He’s on LinkedIn (Dr Richard Huysmans), Twitter (@richardhuysmans), Instagram (@drrichardhuysmans), and Facebook (Beyond Your PhD with Dr Richard Huysmans).

1Crouching Authors, Hidden Pitfalls: Collaboration in Research, Studi di Sociologia, 2018, DOI: 10.26350/000309_000041,, accessed 5 Aug 2019

2A Bibliometric Study of Authorship and Collaboration Trends Over the Past 30 Years in Four Major Musculoskeletal Science Journals, Calcified Tissue International,, access 5 Aug 2019

3Comparative Analysis of Bibliometric, Authorship, and Collaboration Trends Over the Past 30-Year Publication History of the Journal of Orthopaedic Trauma and Injury,_Authorship,.18.aspx, accessed 5 Aug 2019

4Researchers’ individual publication rate has not increased in a century, PLOS|ONE,, access 5 Aug 2019

5Researchers’ individual publication rate has not increased in a century, PLOS|ONE,, access 5 Aug 2019

6Team size, noisy signals and the career prospects of academic scientists,, access 20 Aug 2019