As a young academic, I am struggling to set up a research group that produces papers or proposals on a regular and sustainable basis. I had my share of PhD students, but nothing structured in a proper group or centre. I am also aware that when an academic starts collaborating with others, s/he sooner or later realises that several skills are needed to achieve a quality submission, and that not everyone can excel in all the needed skills.

What type of skills are needed in a cohesive academic group or research centre?

  • Since you have some responses below that seem to answer your question, please consider marking one of them as ‘Accepted’. Commented Sep 24, 2012 at 15:14

4 Answers 4


Some team-related skills:

  • Interviewing. You have to build your own team, and that team has to fit together very well. Given that your research group will likely be small and that your work can be measured in years, a few mistakes here can be very costly to your ability to produce. Be sure you know who you're bringing in, whether you can work with them, and whether when they can work with the rest of your group.

  • Delegation. There's an art to knowing what to delegate and what to do yourself. This will vary from researcher to researcher, and from one graduate student/postdoc/lab technician to the next. Make sure you don't give someone more than they can handle, and make sure that each person has enough to keep them busy.

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    i really like these ones, I must admit, because at least for the "interviewing", it seems obvious but it has to be done properly. I am sure that as anyone else, I tend to select people with a mindset similar to mine, but I am sure that this was is not the optimal one
    – ElCid
    Commented Aug 30, 2012 at 10:06
  • a related question on interviewing is here
    – ElCid
    Commented Aug 30, 2012 at 11:32

I try to only work with people who are capable of excelling in all the skills needed to perform and write up high-quality research.

That's not to say that some of them (particularly students) won't need training in those skills in order to excel, of course. But I definitely don't believe in having 1 guy who only collects data, 1 who only analyzes data, and 1 who only writes (or some such scheme). If you pursue such a scheme, you may be crippling people. They'll likely have a hard time in their next job, when nobody holds their hand through the other parts.

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    thanks. I do not know your experience, but I also try and work with high-calibre researchers. What I meant with the question is hopefully not to cripple anybody! But inevitably, individuals are better than others at certain tasks, some become very good at several skills (writing a good story and being on top of the related work), while others naturally evolve a tendency to e.g. leave the data crunching on a side, and focus on how to have a good "product". I wonder if there's an optimal set of people that would successfully run a papermill
    – ElCid
    Commented Aug 29, 2012 at 14:32
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    @ElCid: Graduate students and postdocs, in order to be successful, will need all of those skills. Having people with specialized skills only helps if you're hiring full-time technical staff.
    – aeismail
    Commented Aug 29, 2012 at 19:44
  • @aeismail: i agree that when working with new students you must be able to pass as much knowledge as possible. But when working with professors you realise that they've done their lot of data mining, and they're much more "useful" in checking that the storyline makes sense, that the sections fit together and so on. So, do I need a full-time professor with these characteristics in my group?
    – ElCid
    Commented Aug 30, 2012 at 10:00
  • @JeffE: it must be appearing in the top-10 books of all our PhD's and post-docs... :-)
    – ElCid
    Commented Aug 30, 2012 at 10:01
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    @ElCid My (former) advisor still does a lot of his own programming, data mining, etc. Many of the best senior people I know in my field still do too. And I think that's part of why they're the best. Commented Aug 30, 2012 at 10:23

Setting goals: As a PI, you need some skills on top of the obvious (like writing grants). One important skill involves setting goals. You need to be able to set reasonable and attainable (but not necessarily easy) short-term goals for your group. At the same time, you need to be able to clearly articulate the overarching long-term, big-picture goals of your research. Good goal setting will help you attract capable researchers to your group.

  • together with the "interviewing skills" i like this the most. Should a group have a webpage setting clear objectives? I like this and this can be done easily
    – ElCid
    Commented Aug 30, 2012 at 10:02

Coherent research focus: Try to make sure that the members of your group work on topics that are close together, to create synergy between topics and allow experienced members to work closely with less experienced ones to allow their skills to pass on and build an environment where internal collaboration is the norm.

  • so far the first part of this experience seems to be functioning fine (working close together, cohesive environment, etc), but it's the "pass-on" phase which is tough, since the turn-over is stuck. Also, I'm never quite sure whether to select the non-sociable geek, or the all-sociable-but-slow party-goer, or... should one be selecting specific skills or personality traits when building a group from the ground-up?
    – ElCid
    Commented Aug 29, 2012 at 13:24
  • One way to attempt to "pass on" the skills is to get people to work together on a paper and make it clear what the roles of the various members are. For instance, you could put a fresh PhD student on a paper with a post-doc and have the PhD student follow along in discussion, make comments on the work and perhaps do some of the writing. Alternatively, you could make the PhD student do the bulk of the work, with the post doc acting as a guide, trying to resist the temptation of jumping in and solving the problem for the student. Commented Aug 29, 2012 at 14:01
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    "Don't hire crap people" is the first rule. I'm still working out the rest. Commented Aug 29, 2012 at 14:01
  • as a follow-up to this answer: I think that any researcher has "phases", at the beginning having sort of a wide spectrum of interests (anything to get a publication :-) and later s/he becomes more focused on one or two clear aspects. The "secret" is being "lucky" and "far-sighted" to detect early an important research focus to be coherent to
    – ElCid
    Commented Aug 30, 2012 at 10:25
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    @DaveClarke, if you have an objective and useful method for not "hiring crap people," there are software engineering companies that will pay you millions and millions of dollars for the method...
    – daaxix
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 10:10

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