Mentoring matters – how to lead your research group

Summary of How to manage your research career
A talk by Reinhart Reitmeier, PhD
Written by our guest blogger Nerges Winblad

Beyond the Professoriate organized an online Academic Job Market conference during fall of 2019 and through KI career service I got the opportunity to listen to the presentations and get inspired. Therefore, I have chosen to write about Dr. Reitmeier’s talk, which is directed to early career researchers starting to set up their own labs. Even though this is not where I am at in my career, I found his talk very interesting and inspiring. This summary is an excerpt from Reinhart Reitmeier’s presentation and only highlights the leadership parts of the talk.

As early career researchers, we are all trying to figure out our paths. Knowing this, Reinhart Reitmeier, professor at the University of Toronto, recommends everyone from PhD student to senior investigator to have a mentor that is around 10 years ahead of you in their career. For graduate students, he sometimes recommends to get a mentor outside of academia.

“They’re someone you as an individual respect and trust, and also they’re willing and able to help you and easy to talk to,” Dr Reitmeier points out.

What it comes down to is getting support and perspective from someone who has been in your shoes and is willing to share his/her experiences with you.

Apart from having a mentor to guide you along the way, it is important to spend time thinking about with whom you want to work. A key element is to have good technical support acting as your hands in the lab, taking responsibility for health and safety, training incoming lab members and overseeing rules and regulations from the start. Teaching and administrative work will keep you busy quickly, therefore having a technician that you can trust and rely on will be invaluable. Dr. Reithmeier also recommends recruiting three undergraduate students to work as a team on a project, since they are highly motivated and will benefit from the team building experience. In addition, most of the research being done in the lab is, naturally, done by PhD students and postdocs. Select people for these positions because they want to work with you as a person and not just work with anyone. Furthermore, Dr. Reitmeier is a strong proponent for collaboration, since teaming up with other smart people can be very effective and a good experience for everyone involved.

Having a lab full of people is great, but it does not automatically make you a successful leader. Reinhart Reitmeier’s advice to you, the group leader, is to define your role in the relationship between supervisor and student. He does not encourage you to be solely an employer nor a friend, but rather a supporter, an advisor and a role model while at the same time being a professor and a scientist. Surely, this is not an easy task but it is part of what he believes make a good leader. He also listed a number of qualities he envisions a good leader to have, as shown in the picture below.

https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/pgprZpSldLBFXIfOvCR_NE118CwKRvUrKeKrAX4UlfLTe-HjV5Vbn5znkQTfJfg1yZ8j26PKnYaeNEydc040Hq5h2KLRF-fh1RROd4ol0v_5sT4q2k8GEloDvZtOYtvu2KLkoHqO
Dr. Reitmeier’s list of what makes you a good leader. Screen shot from the talk “How to manage your research career”, by Reinhart Reitmeier, PhD, during online Academic Job Market conference hosted by Beyond the Professoriate (2019).

I think all of us should strive for these qualities to become better colleagues by being good team players. As a group leader, you are also responsible for setting the standard for the lab culture by being a role model, creating respect for everyone in the lab, promoting open communication and managing people. It is important to let your group members know what your aspirations are and where you see the lab going, so that everyone knows where and how they fit in. 

Lastly, open communication, according to Dr. Reitmeier, will solve most issue that comes along. If you notice one of your students struggling you should encourage them to go talk to the student health professionals, which most universities have at hand today. His advice is not to get personal and discuss their private life but simply be there and support them so that they get the help they need to recover. Many times, it is the person who looks happy and who is quite productive that is struggling and you as a group leader need to pay attention to this. His advice to students is to openly communicate what you are going through, manage your time wisely so that you have time to recover in between work days, eat well, exercise, find a mentor with whom to talk to about work-life balance, get help- it is there if you need it, and to remember that you are not alone.

In summary, when setting up your lab, the people you choose to work with will be the foundation driving your research forward. Choose them wisely, support and advise them. Lastly, aim to tick off all of the qualities in Dr. Reitmeier’s list to be the best leader you can be.

This post is written as part of a series based on the conference “The Academic Job Marget”, organized by “Beyond the Professoriate”, with access provided by KI Career Service. Read other blogs from this conference.

Banner Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

One thought on “Mentoring matters – how to lead your research group

  1. Absolutely! Mentoring is the key to develop and sustain a satisfying professional career. Mentoring enables each of us to grow, learn, transform, and accomplish goals in education or in basic, clinical, and organization research.

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