First, let me preface the post by saying that I have been very lucky in being given the opportunity to establish my own group in a very supportive environment. In the German system, it is common for early-career researchers to have groups under the umbrella of a professor (at a university) or director (at a research institute). That is, each professor/director has a sub-department with independent, or semi-independent, groups under them. This means that I’ve had few of the commitments that are common in tenure-track positions (such as teaching and service), and someone I can turn to for guidance.
So, what worked? The best decision I made was to take my fledgling group on a weekend away very early on (see picture below). During this trip, we got to know each other much better, build friendships, and most importantly set up a lab identity. This dynamic was reinforced by having roughly fortnightly lab dinners (we all buy food and cook together). At work, we were lucky to be given a lab space where everyone (actually except me) could sit together. This promoted lots of discussions, that in turn made it easier for everyone (including bachelor students) to be comfortable enough to contribute to journal clubs and other scientific discussions. These discussions led to several joint projects among lab members – and more discussions – a self-perpetuating cycle!
Our lab retreat to northern Italy really helped us form a group rather than a disparate set of researchers.
The composition of the lab also played an important role in the great dynamic that we have (coincidentally, this interesting article came out about the same time I started recruiting). First, the gender balance is roughly even at all levels. Second, I was lucky to receive some extra funding in the first year, which I used to hire a postdoc. I really don’t regret using that money for this – the contribution she has made to the lab has been extremely positive. I’ve also been keen to encourage undergraduate and masters students to be part of the lab, and had some really excellent international visitors spend time here already. All of these have helped maintain a critical mass in the group, and have promoted great enthusiasm for doing science, and I believe have set the foundations for some really exciting science in the near future.
But what hasn’t worked? While I think that the majority of the success has been due to the great students in my lab, most of what hasn’t worked is actually down to me. First, keeping budgets is definitely a skill I need to work on – particularly when projects are kicking off and lots of new equipment is needed. The budget is also a constant reminder of the limitations imposed on doing science: I have so many ideas and so many excellent applicants! The solution to this is of course to apply for grants, which more often than not leads to rejection (plus, if you come from a big prestigious lab and are now striking it out on your own, you might not be quite so used to that degree of rejection).
The other element is of course trying to learn all of the rules before you break them. This is particularly challenging when establishing a new lab in a different country, with its own set of rules and regulations. Unfortunately I’ve mostly learnt by breaking the rules, such as buying equipment from online shops rather than ordering through specialised procurement software. There are many days when it all seems a bit too hard and I couldn’t put a foot right!
My thoughts on the whole process? There are several elements of setting up a group that I was well prepared for, and others that took me by surprise. I had a pretty good idea about increased demands on time (supervision, some teaching, plus admin). What is also well known is the huge amount of time needed to write grants and set up new projects, and the conflict between wanting to travel to conferences to present and having to spend time setting up new work. Together, these basically reduce productivity (in terms of producing new publications) in the first year to almost 0. At this point, I am trying to get back into the rhythm of writing my own papers again.
What surprised me the most? Setting up a group is incredibly rewarding. I love seeing bachelors students discovering both the joys and pains of doing research, hearing masters students getting excited about new ideas they hadn’t thought about before, having PhD students writing their first papers, and working with postdocs to push the frontiers of science. I’ve probably spent more time on this, and not enough time paying attention other expectations of me. Do I regret that? Not for a minute.