How Do You Build a Research Group?

The steps for building a research group or lab are vague, and unclear.

For people with a great idea, hoping to build a business on it, there are coaches, start-up programs, business information sessions, incubators, co-working spaces, mentors, seminars, workshops, and more. You can find people dedicated to setting up your website, managing your finances, obtaining seed finding, building your pitch, writing a business plan, getting grants, building a franchise, using social media marketing, and much more.

Yet, if you want to build a research lab or group – which in many cases shares common themes with building a small business – there are little to no supports.

There are few equivalents outside academia. Having a middle management job in industry might be similar, with respect to staff and budget management, but you generally don’t build the team in the same way you build a research team. In industry, you are generally given a team. Or told what to build and provided with the resources to make it happen. You are given things like a budget, space and infrastructure. Even if it is a new business function or area, you don’t need to be build everything from scratch. Generally, the business has people and support functions (e.g. HR and procurement) that can help you build budgets, teams, position descriptions, and identify the skills needed to make your area or new venture a success.

If the business advice is
to write a business plan
– the research advice is
to write a research plan

But not in research.

In research, you need to build a reputation and a track record. Work with others to demonstrate you are worthy or capable of holding down your own research project. All the while you look for opportunities – small grants – that you can apply for in order start building your own group. Developing your own identity. Taking your own entrepreneurial idea, your own research ideas, and build a team around you focused on understanding, and solving those problems. And I’ve written about this process.

However, following on from that blog, and reflecting on the mountains of advice on building a business I thought I’d take that advice and translate it to building YourName.Group. There is some peer reviewed literature in this space, but not a lot. As you might imagine it is very hard to find businesses that are about to start and then do a trial on what they do as they start in order to work out what is best. Most studies are reflectional and/or retrospective. And I think those studies tend to report correlations rather than causations. Planning is a great example. Most people suggest planning is essential for start-up success. In fact, you’d find it hard to locate advice about starting something new that does not include a planning step. However, in a study published in 2010 indicated planning did not impact success for brand new ventures but did have a positive influence on those who have already started.1

So, for this blog I thought I’d go a little left field and take advice from the Business Victoria website2 and translate each step to an equivalent in academia/research.

Here we go.

And once you’ve done all that you start! So, get the business plan out and start at the beginning. If there’s not enough detail, add it in. Good luck! And, if you’re thinking about setting up your own group, I’d love to 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).

1Should entrepreneurs plan or just storm the castle? A meta-analysis on contextual factors impacting the business planning–performance relationship in small firms, Journal of Business Venturing, 25 (2010) 24-40 doi:10.1016/j.jbusvent.2008.10.007

2Starting a Business,, accessed 6 Sep 2019