Research Group Dynamics

Research Group Dynamics

Lately, I’ve been wondering about my research group and if I’m bringing the right people on board in the right order. It’s not that I have specific doubts about a person or anything to directly point at. Rather, I think everyone in the research group should operate, well, like a well-meshed gear set (pun intended, [photo credit]). Mentally, this makes perfect sense to me. I just wonder if I’m suffering from delusions of grandeur and they’re going to mix like oil and water once we get past the initial phase.

I’m currently up to 5 students with sufficient overlap on projects to ensure they have a reason to work together and I have reiterated it in almost every group meeting. My students seem to want to work together and are open/friendly with one another, so that is a very good sign.

But more importantly, what are the key mechanics of running a successful research group? I’ve outlined a list of some possible ideas that I’ve tried to take in to consideration. I’d love to hear of any other suggestions or some third rails to avoid.

  1. Project overlap: As I said, each member of my group has an overlap with at least one or two other members of the group. However, no student is completely dependent on the results of another student. I’m doing this to motivate my students to work together but not cause friction due to a reliance on another student. I do think it’s very important to have project overlap in general because it gives the group a sense of identity.
  2. Group Identity/Branding: How important is to have a “brand” for your group to identify with? For example, my group’s name gives a sense of the type of research. But it also has a quirky acronym that can be used internally for gimmicky stuff. I think this is fine because I am trying to build a top-notch research group that is known in the field and a brand helps. But is the quirky-gimmicky stuff  worth it? My students seem to be on board but will that make them not take it seriously? Thoughts?
  3. Meetings/Management: How often does your group meet? Currently, we meet 1-2 times a week as a group, pending university activities. Some of this is for a “news session/group update” but I do spend about 1-2 hours a week tutoring my students on topics related to the field. While this info is not always directly applicable, it is important because it’s the basics of the field. Also, I find it easier to tutor them in a small setting than wait for them to comb through paper after paper. My intention is to give them a base such that they have a better overall understanding as they comb through the literature. Also, I will use these tutoring sessions to work on softer skills like rebuttals, publication reviews, presenting work, and LaTeX. Would you like this if your advisor did it more? Or would you find this a waste of time?

These are the main things that I’ve focused on because I think this is a good approach to building a group quickly but does take substantial time on my part. I willing to do it because the sooner I have them feeding off one another as semi autonomous researchers, the sooner I can delve deeper in to the research and not have to cover the fundamentals. Thoughts? Comments? Anything else I should add to my list?


My MS advisor did something similar with the group, and I found it very worthwhile. That was my first formal introduction to LaTeX, and it gave me an excuse to chat with my fellow groupmates. (Some of us were only there part-time, so there wasn’t as much overlap and exposure as in other groups.) So, a big thumbs up on the group meetings.

A lot depends on the department culture and curriculum. In my department, all students get LaTeX, BibTeX, and advanced library search skills in a required “how to be a grad student” course, so duplicating those things in lab groups is not needed (which is just as well, since half our faculty are incompetent in those skills). But there are skills that are unique to individual labs (sometimes specific database or machine-learning techniques, sometimes wet-lab skills). These are generally done in lab groups, often by having one student tasked to present a tutorial to the rest. For a group of 5 students, once a week meetings with the group is probably enough. If you alternate between research update from one student and journal-club or tutorial presentation, then each student will give a presentation about every 5 weeks, alternating between their own work and someone else’s. That is a reasonable rate for presentation practice—more often would be too much drain on their time and less often would be insufficient practice.

I agree that once a week is probably enough for a group meeting. Do you have individual ones? I think these are important, some students need 1-on-1 attention.

Making a brand is important. I don’t think an acronym per se is that important though, people will recognize the group by your name and the work you do. I don’t think I remember any of collaborators’ group names. The brand gets tied to the PI.

GSWOP, So far, I haven’t asked anyone else in the group to present, simply because I’m trying to tutor them on the background. However, that’s a good point you make to give them the opportunity but not drown them with presentations.

GMP, I have an open door policy with my graduate students. When they need a 1-on-1 and my door is open, they’re welcome to discuss anything.

The acronym was to give a sense of (internal) identity that shows I have a humorous side while still showing a serious research face to the rest of the world.

1) Project overlap is something sorely lacking in my current research group, and we clearly have issues because of this. 10 people, probably 15 projects among us.
2) Having a coherent aim for the lab seems more important than having a catchy brand.
3) We meet once a week, and generally have a business discussion (i.e., what needs ordered, is anything broken?) and one student presentation a week. We are an admittedly large group, so students present roughly twice a year, between travel cancelations of meetings and inserting practice talks for specific occasions, like conference and prelims. My advisor occasionally tries to teach us how to use Microsoft Word the way he wants, but we regularly run into the versioning issue, where he expects us to be using features that don’t exist in every version. 2 times a week would start feeling like a burden to me, but that may be due to the non-productiveness of most of our meetings.

Also, an open door policy is nice, but it requires you to be in your office. In theory, we can stop by my PI’s office whenever. In practice, he is very rarely in there. We end up scheduling 1-on-1 meetings every few weeks

I had that same dynamic (or lack there of) in the past so I wanted to make sure that I had everyone starting at the same tree trunk.

That’s a key point about the coherency versus branding but I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.

So far, I’ve managed to be in my office at regular intervals but that’s because I’m awaiting equipment and doing a lot of paperwork-type things. Once my lab is more established, I’ll definitely be there more often.

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