In most of the European Universities I know, research groups are created from the equivalent of Assistant Professors and the Principal Investigator is voted in some sort of election, where there are elections every 2/4 years. In groups with such profile I have usually seen that scientific output is low and that most of these members are not really motivated to do research and are only affiliated to these groups for CV and promotion purposes. But this is of course my personal experience, I do not state this is always like this. From the other side I know other groups that are created from scratch from somebody with a very good CV, who has a vision and ambition, and who gets all research group members not from Department colleagues but from funding he/she attracts. All group research lines are derived from her/his experience and CV and scientific output in this case and according to my experience, tends to be high. Based on your personal experience or factual evidences, what is the most optimal configuration for a new research group, the former or the latter or do you think there are other different configurations?

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    I've worked at several European universities, and I've never seen or heard of the first type of system you describe. Could you specify where this is used?
    – silvado
    Commented Jul 26, 2019 at 8:13
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    Given the way you framed the question, the answer is obvious. In other words, you have set up a straw man for us to knock down. That is not a good question. So can you tell us why you are asking this question? What is the real underlying question you want to ask us, or is this just a rant? Commented Jul 26, 2019 at 13:15
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    [citations needed]
    – lux
    Commented Jul 26, 2019 at 22:13
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    Pretty much every claim you make (scientific output is usually low, members are not motivated to do research etc. Based on what evidence?)
    – lux
    Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 9:15
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    What is a "research group" in your perception? And why wouldn't the individual teams in the first model (assistant professor + staff") be functionally equivalent to the groups in the second model? Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 15:31

2 Answers 2


If you want to maximize the output, impact and success of a research group you have to increase the synergetic potential of the staff, set up good research questions, acquire funding etc.

The PI can be a genius, but if he is unable to identify good researchers for his team, researchers with complementary abilities and lead a team, then he will underperform. Extreme cases of such PI's are savants/prodigies (e.g. autism syndrome) with limited social skills.

There are nowadays companies who "rent" savants or people with special abilities in math/informatics to other companies to solve distinct problems, but taking care of the social integration and well-being of them by setting the right boundary conditions for such jobs. This is not very different in research groups, you often have persons with very special personality, interests and social/cognitive abilities.

The optimal configuration of your group will always depend on what the research group is investigating and what the existing team is looking like. You don't want to have only alpha-males on ship if you set up a team to fly to mars.

There are even studies what kind of staff number is ideal in distinct scientific fields, a particle physics group has from theoreticians to experimentalists up to technical employees a very different structure in comparison to english literature.

The question is rather how do you develop from the current group structure to a better one, going from zero directly to the best one is only possible in a hypothetical perfect world with unlimited funding :-)

  • Thanks @user847982 for your very insightful answer. I agree with your view and like your sentence "You don't want to have only alpha-males on ship if you set up a team to fly to mars.", which explains perfectly your point. Regarding "There are even studies what kind of staff number is ideal ..." can you add some references? Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 8:53
  • @Opentheway see here for example psychology.stackexchange.com/q/10/9423 Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 10:30

I assume you are basing this on European model, so in my experience the groups based around some common interests are the strongest one because they have a vision that can lead group. Usually these are friends or couples, that succeed to attract funding making multidisciplinary team. In such a team everyone knows each roles and they keep each other back by making sure people are represented in publications in terms of authorship equally. I would suggest you to take a look on Research Gate lab profiles where you can see how members of particular lab are connected and what grants or projects they menage. In my opinion it is the best way to discover dynamic of a group and internal structure. Second things are Center of Excellences, they are now because of HORISONT2020 becoming more popular and are highly hierarchical. However primordial idea for their creation was done trough application of group or consortium of reaserchers and scientist, in there you can observe same things as in your question, however structure is maintained highly hierarchical. In my opinion best way to organise research group is around "friends and family" because you need to trust people in order to follow through with your agenda. I'm not saying that groups that are based around one person are bad, but due to increasing emphasis in academia on teaching, management and bureaucracy, alone PI in current European funding scheme structure can not survive.

  • Thanks for your answer @SSimon. Regarding your answer, the two group types I described are based on what I have seen with my own eyes in different European countries, and what I have read or understood from non-EU countries. Of course for the latter my opinion might be very biased or invalid. The "family and friends" group is a very interesting configuration that I will add to the list and which I have never seen (unfortunately for me). I think that when it works it can be very strong. But from the other side and according to my experience sometimes working with friends can be problematic .. Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 8:49
  • .. I mean problematic because when they do not follow deadlines and do not want to work, you do not want to remember them about that since you do not want fo lose your friendship. What do you think about this? Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 8:50
  • @open the way Actually, academic power couples are quite famous in Europe. Well when you get grant everyone is doing on their own part,it doesn't mean you actually work together. That is why you have students and hire reaserchers:^), being part of some group so called academic clik. Most effective workers are your students and postdocs. Others on possition will tend not to work so much.
    – SSimon
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 12:58

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