Starting your Academic Research Group

by Dominik Konkolewicz (Miami University)

Exciting times, you just got an academic position, you are finally an independent researcher, ready to pursue your own projects, and teach in a way that you wish you were taught. However, this can also lead to so many demands all happening at the same time. Below we give our advice on how to adapt from mentee to mentor, including things we found helpful and things to do going forward.

You are going to have many roles, time management is key

As a early career academic, you are now going to teach classes, potentially serve on student committees, set up and establish a research group and a group culture, mentor students, seek funding, write papers and you will be asked to serve on committees (service). For the past few years, your focus was research, running experiments, analyzing data. So you have excellent time management and analytical skills, now you can use them to distribute tasks for yourself and your students.

Don’t be afraid to ask for resources from colleagues

Your colleagues (at your current institution and also former ones) should want you to succeed, why else did they hire you or mentor you? Don’t be shy to reach out and ask for resources. This can be class materials, syllabi, examples of proposals and projects, etc. You will probably not follow any one of these formats exactly, as you will have your own style, BUT, it is going to be helpful to see examples and templates from which you can add your own contributions, style and perspectives.

Work with your students in the lab

Although you may feel the pressure to be in the office writing proposals and reviews from day 1, it is important that you work with students in the research labs for as long as possible. This helps set up rigor in the lab, and also gives confidence in the techniques. It also allows you to develop your own mentoring style and approach, certainly get feedback from others about how they approach mentoring, but adapt to what works for you!

Develop a network, both of people at a similar career stage, in addition to those further along their career trajectory

Most likely you have already received advice to network with established leaders in your research topic. This is great advice, as these people have seen ebbs and flows in projects, as well as substantial influence in your field. However, just as important is networking with people in a similar career stage. It can be really helpful to have a group of people going though similar challenges to you, and to share your experiences.

Embrace the fact you will have too many things on your to-do list

The first six-twelve months will likely be chaotic, as this will involve new teaching preps, setting up lab, hopefully collecting your first sets of data, and learning the ropes on your new committee assignments. It is ok to feel overwhelmed by this, but it is also an opportunity to explore new ideas and projects. You will have some projects that you start in this phase that fail completely, and hopefully at least 1 that works well. The best thing about this phase, is that it is totally normal to have failed projects in this timeframe, it doesn’t mean you have poor ideas, you just need to adapt and move towards avenues that are promising. You can always take any feedback and do better, whether it is in teaching, research or service.

Final thoughts

Setting up your independent career is stressful but hopefully rewarding. It will probably feel like you have hundreds of things going on at once. Don’t be shy about reaching out to former mentors, and developing meaningful networks with peers, either in your department or your community. And just remember this is the time to adapt to new opportunities. Finally, you can now mentor students and trainees, and these connections will last a lifetime.