Setting up your first research team – Part 1 – Strategy and who will do what?

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So you’ve been a researcher for a while but now you have your first grant as a PI and suddenly you are in charge! You know the research area and methods inside out and you’ve supervised a few junior researchers day-to-day. Being solely in charge however  is a completely different story and it is really important that you get the most out of this first grant to get your independent career off to a flying start. So what can you do to make sure you get things right from word go?

Glaser and Glaser (1992) wrote about five important areas which contribute to team effectiveness – it may help to think about these when setting up your new team. Here we look at the first two:

1) Team mission, planning and goal-setting

You could also call this your team strategy. It is really important that both you and your team are clear about where you are going with the work. Taking some time to get clarify this in your head and communicate it to your team will help you to set individual goals and to enthuse your staff and students. It is much easier to enthuse people if they have a shared vision they are working towards. They will also be much more likely to work hard and achieve the goals you set them if they know how they fit into a bigger picture. This is particularly important if you have several people working on different grants which are all contributing to a larger aim. Sometimes it won’t be immediately obvious  to them what the bigger picture is but if you can explain it to them, it is likely to make their work that much more exciting.

One question you could ask yourself is if someone came to your university with a million pounds burning a hole in their pocket and you had 5 mins to persuade them to fund your team, what would you tell them is the main aim of your research?

Planning and setting goals also enables you to make expectations clear from the start and will hopefully prevent misunderstandings down the line. Make sure that goal-setting is a two-way process so that the other person can tell you if there is a reason why the goal is unrealistic for them. They will also feel more engaged if they have been involved in the process. You may want to use the idea of S(pecific) M(easurable) A(cheivable) R(ealistic) T(imely) objectives as a guide for setting goals, while bearing in mind that some research goals are difficult to pin down as specifically as this – in research you may end up somewhere else entirely which could be more interesting and just as valid!

2)   Roles and responsibilities

Make sure everyone knows what their role and responsibilities are within the team. Some of this will flow from the first area above if you manage to set clear goals and expectations. However, it may also include some of the more mundane work which is needed to keep a research team going. For instance, do you need a Health and Safety rep for the team, who is responsible for booking a room for team meetings and who is going to empty the lab bins?

You may also need to consider for instance, depending on how large your team will be, whether you are going to ask post-docs to supervise your PhD students to an extent and you will need to clarify this role in terms of what is your responsibility and what is theirs. Giving post-docs this opportunity is great for their career development but it is important that they are given clear guidance on what you expect from them.

Lastly, make sure that each person’s contribution to the team is recognised and valued. What can you put in place to make sure the whole team is kept up to date on each person’s contribution to the bigger picture? We will look more at team process in part 2 as well as interpersonal relationships.


Glaser, R and Glaser, C (1992) Team Effectiveness Profile: How is your team working? Publisher: Organization Design and Development, 1992.

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