Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The subtle art of managing a research group

One thing that you rarely learn before starting a faculty job is how much work goes into managing a research group. During my pre-tenure days, this meant squeezing the most productivity out of my students and making sure they were hitting on all cylinders. Now that I have tenure, my role is more like a bodhisattva -- simply to make sure that my students (and postdocs and research staff) are successful in whatever they do. Of course, productivity and success have a high degree of overlap, but they are not exactly the same thing.

There are many subtle things that one needs to know to make sure that a research group is functioning properly. A lot of it has to do with making sure that the personalities mesh well. For a while, I tried to get all of my students to work together on One Big Project. We would have these big group meetings and write design docs but over time it became clear to me that it just wasn't working. It finally dawned on me that a couple of the students in my group (including one who had developed most of the core code that I wanted everyone else to rely on) were not that interested in working with other people -- they were far better off doing their own thing. I've also had students who really work fantastically in a team setting, sometimes to a fault. Those students are really good at doing service work and helping others, when they really should be more selfish and pushing their own agenda first. In general it's good to have a mix of personalities with different strengths in the group. If everyone is gunning to be head honcho, it isn't going to work.

Of course, most junior faculty go into the job with zero management training or skills. One's experience in grad school no doubt has a big influence on their approach to running a research group. My advisor was David Culler, who is known to be extremely hands-off with his students (though he can do this amazing Jedi mind trick -- to get his students to do his bidding -- that I have never quite mastered). I took after David, though I find that I am much happier hacking alongside the students, rather than only discussing things at the whiteboard. I also see lots of junior faculty who live in the lab with their students and have their hands all over their code, so there are many different paths to enlightenment.

All along I wished I had more management experience or training. Early on, I was given a copy of Robert Boice's Advice for New Faculty Members, and frankly found it to be fairly useless. It is unnecessarily cryptic: the very first section is entitled "Rationale for a Nihil Nimus (Moderate) Approach to Teaching" -- I am still not sure what the hell that means, but it certainly wasn't any help for someone starting up a big research lab.

It turns out that MIT Professional Education runs a short course on Leadership Skills for Engineering and Science Faculty. (I signed up for this a few years ago but they canceled the course due to low enrollment! I certainly hope to take it one day.) Another useful resource is the Harvard Business Review Paperback Series, which is a collection of (very short and readable) books on management topics, some of which are germane to science faculty running a lab. For example, the book on motivating people gets into the various ways of getting your "employees" (a.k.a. students) to be productive, and talks all about the pros and cons of the carrot versus the stick. Synopsis: If you can get inside the head of an unmotivated student and figure out what they want, you can motivate them to do anything. This must be the key behind Culler's Jedi mind trick.


  1. This is not unique to new faculty, but happens to new researchers (like me) in the industry as well, where I have to work with developers, interns and other researchers. It's an enlightening experience, and I definitely wish I had taken some management classes.

  2. It is interesting how you mention your two styles of advising, and how they are related to tenure: (1) making sure you squeeze student productivity (pre-tenure), and (2) making sure that your students are successful (post-tenure). As a student of a professor that has recently been granted tenure, I have partly experienced both styles, and have seen them also to be related to tenure.

    I think (2) is the only way to go. The way I see it, the job of a professor is to graduate great students. If they are only in it for their own research, they should join a research lab. While maximizing student productivity is best for the professor, it may be very detrimental to student development. I have seen this first hand, with some students literally being work horses for their professor, and then graduating disillusioned about grad school as well as not having all the tools necessary to be independent researchers. It really does the students a large disservice. How can this be changed? It seems the stresses of a pre-tenure professor demand that student productivity be maximized at almost all costs.

  3. It is a nice thing you comment here, and let me tell you some story:

    Here in Japan, is kinda difficult to become a Professor, but once you become one, well is too easy.

    Try looking for papers in Japanese Universities and maybe 60% of the time (I'm being a bit conservative) the professor, although his name is in the paper, had NOTHING to do with it, most of the time he won't know what is it about.

    Even their own papers are usually written by PhD's or PostDocs. And since there is no quota for papers, that is they have no obligation of publishing anything original themselves, they slack off most of the times.

    Some Professors even demand to their students to put his name at the begging, even if had nothing to do with the paper. And since in Japan numbers rule instead of quality, well some very well respected professors in robotics know little to nothing in the nowadays topics.

    And of course, their leadership capabilities rely on mere respect, rather than an acknowledgment of real academic ability. Most of the times they have no clear plan of work and leave you to do whatever you want. Just to slap you afterwards because they could not understand what you chose.

    And their English level, although good in some instances, I really doubt is good enough to understand a serious research paper, since they have problem with basic words like "contempt", "naive" and "daunting", to cite some examples.

    A respect based system like the one in Japan or in China is hurting much the Academic aspect of them, and when they go abroad to do some visiting, they are amazed universities actually demand them to write papers ("that is unheard off" I heard one Japanese professor said once he went to MIT, "They wanted me to write my own papers" said another in Stanford) The few that have been for more than a couple of years in America or Europe have a better grasp of it, and are the really good Professors.

    I have been trying hard to put some order in my laboratory, I am the oldest member here, which gives me some status (again, age against expertise) and I have been searching for ways to have people work together.

    I think a good way to do it, is actually to hold off workshops to see who work the best by being by themselves and who works better by being on a team.

    Anyway, sorry for the big post.

  4. Hey Matt, another fun topic.

    I've also sought out management books etc without much success. I'm also in search or David's Jedi mind trick, or maybe Kubi's version. Let me know if you find something that works. My sense thus far is that what works really depends on the personality of the prof, and by extension, his/her students.

    So what have you been doing with that challenge?
    In the absence of the Jedi skills, I've just taken an attrition approach, where only students that are motivated and match my group in personality/intensity stay in my lab. I'm hoping to find a better solution. Suggestions?

  5. A thought-provoking post - it sounds like you'd say that the process of getting a Ph.D. doesn't seem to train you to be a professor - I've definitely heard that opinion from others…

    Any thoughts on how the tenure evaluation process could be modified to reward a more balanced focus on student success instead of productivity?

  6. Michael - I'm not sure that much can be done about this. At the end of the day the people writing tenure letters don't know (or care) about anything other than the candidate's research output and service to the community. This is one reason why teaching evaluations rarely take a central role in tenure cases. Things like "being a good mentor to students" or "is a nice person" don't really play in. Case in point: Neither of the previous two statements can be attributed to me :-)

  7. yeah right..its is hard to become a leader...

  8. cause it need to be a good servant to obtain a good leadership skill... I'm good at review


  9. After read blog topic's related post now I feel my research is almost completed. happy to see that.Thanks to share this brilliant matter.


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