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Building your research group

Module by: Rice ADVANCE. E-mail the author

Summary: Keynote talk presented by Jane Grande-Allen at the 2011 NSF ADVANCE Workshop: Negotiating the Ideal Faculty Position, A Workshop for Underrepresented PhDs and Postdocs in Science, Engineering and Psychology September 18-20, 2010

General Thoughts

  • The goal of your research program is to gain tenure and to establish a strong repuation
    • Do the things that support this goal
    • Do NOT do things that interfere with this goal
  • How you set up your research group will follow you and will help determine your success
  • Worry about results, funding, and people!

Research Group Elements

  • People
    • Undergraduates
    • Graduate students
    • Postdocs
    • Technical support staff
  • Space
    • Place for people, equipment, materials and supplies

Motivating Your Group

  • Find students who will work hard
  • Find ways to avoid or dismiss students who will not work hard or are disruptive or dishonest
  • Support your students and ensure their own learning process
    • Provide guidance
    • Provide feedback on their work and on their writing


  • Technical staff
    • Have clear job description
    • Ask a colleague to help in interviews
    • Are technical staff the best use of resources?
  • Postdocs
    • Does department have prejudice for/against postdocs? Favor graduate students?
    • How difficult is it to recruit postdocs?
    • Are there university resources for postdocs?
  • Graduate Students
    • What are departmental expectations for number of graduate students per year?
    • Will the graduate students also be expected to be TAs?
    • What are the processes for evaluation and advancement to candidacy for graduate students?
  • Undergraduate research students
    • How many can you reasonably manage?
    • What are the departmental expectations for undergraduate research mentoring?
    • How do you strike the balance?
    • Using graduate students/postdocs as in-lab mentors for undergraduates can be a very successful strategy

Keeping Up

  • Have regular meetings with each member of your laboratory
    • Be aware of what they are doing
    • If they need assistance, figure out the best way to guide them forward
  • Have lab members write regular reports that can form the basis for publications
    • Use an outline to plan publication
    • Sketch figures/tables
    • Easy way to see what they are thinking and provide feedback

Personnel Management

  • Establish a positive “lab culture”
  • Have regular lab meetings to discuss research and look at papers in your area
  • Be proactive in addressing personnel conflicts (or potential conflicts)
    • Get help if you need it
    • No one wants a caustic/poisonous lab environment
  • Lead by example

Create Clear Expectations

  • Consider a “compact” document that outlines your expectations that you review with students and that they sign
    • Include information on backups for data/computers, books, chemicals, code, coursework, FAX use, funding, human subjects, lab duties, lab safety officer, new member orientation, use of equipment, website
  • Provide clear guidance on
    • Lab notebooks
    • Literature coverage (shared in lab meetings)
    • Attendance at meetings
    • General comportment
    • Publications
      • Orders of authors/responsibilities
    • Engagement in manuscript review/grant review
  • Safety issues and procedures
  • Security of the lab and its people
  • Software policies
  • Travel expectations
    • How often/who will fund/who must present
  • Vacations
  • Progress reports
  • Work hours

Recruiting Graduate Students

  • Volunteer to serve on the admissions committee
  • Teach classes geared for graduate students
  • Mentor graduate students as they enter the department

Non-experimental Space

  • Be sure that your office is placed in the relationship you desire with respect to your group members
    • Some like it close
    • Some like it far away
  • Arrange your office to support your style of working
  • Embrace your independence
    • From your mentors/advisors
  • In some disciplines, the work you are judged on is independent of your group’s work!

Physical Space

  • Moving into existing space
    • Proximity to colleagues
    • Access to department/university equipment
    • Proper utilities for equipment
      • Electrical, air, vacuum, water
    • Hoods
      • Chemical, tissue culture
    • Air handling
      • Vibration issues, flow issues, etc.
    • Office space for students/postdocs
      • Separate or within lab?
  • Rennovating space
    • Negotiate for a tenure clock extension, if your delay is >4-6 months
    • Same issues apply as for existing space, but you have some choices!
    • Think carefully about what you need for your work
      • Electrical, clean power, ventilation, hoods, plumbing, chilled water, air flow from the HVAC system, everything
    • Do careful research about what you need
      • Contact vendors for equipment specifications and problems identified at other institutions
      • Ask colleagues about problems encountered at your institution
    • Learn from others about renovations
    • Work with the architects/contractor to get your project within the assigned cost range
    • Be actively involved in every state of the process – follow process regularly
    • Ensure that what you need in being taken into account, especially completion date
    • Be prepared for delays
      • Write grants or papers, prepare for teaching
  • Organize how you will move in
  • Think about what you will do and in what order
  • Ask for space to work temporarily if there are things that can get you going
  • Take the time to engage your colleagues and learn more about the department


  • Seek possible discounts
  • Negotiate with multiple vendors for the best price
  • Allow sufficient lead time for items that are complex (1-6 months for large equipment)


  • Talk with multiple vendors (bulk discounts from some with large orders)
  • Package as much as possible with each individual vendor for best price
  • Consider larger quantities of items that “keep” and that you know you will need
    • Biggest discount you’ll ever get!
    • Think about storage strategies

Continually Think

  • Keep reflecting how things are working (arrangement of space, interactions among lab members)
  • Take steps to make changes that would make a difference
  • Be sure to think about your joy in the work and the ways you can inspire your team!

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