Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Group Dynamics

Lately, I’ve been thinking student and research group managements. Given the dynamics of lab setup, startup money, and teaching responsibilities, I probably will have about 3 grad students for the first few years. Once I start building up resources from external funding sources, I might be fortunate enough to support 5+ students and maybe a postdoc. The question is, is that necessary to run an effective research group?

During my MSc work, I was in a smaller group (~4 grad students) and during my PhD, I was one of 8-12 PhD students and up to 3 Postdocs. With a group that large during my PhD, it was easier (and more productive) to essentially break off research with one of the postdocs and just work on our own stuff together. Basically we had our own “small group” within the large group.

The pros of that situation were obviously good and fruitful (otherwise I wouldn’t have the opportunity that I have now...). We were able to focus our research, crank out papers, attend a lot of conferences, and pool resources. At the same time, our interaction with the rest of the group dropped off and there were so many students, that keeping track of what we were doing was difficult for our advisors.

Twice, I have benefitted from a smaller group and clearly seen the ineffectiveness of a large group (although 1 data point doesn’t make a trend). At the same time, during interviews and discussions with other faculty, the general trend seems to say bigger is better. The break seems to be between 4/5 students and 5+ students. For the latter, a postdoc is necessary to help manage the group. At the same time, the amount of funding per year also jumps. More students/postdocs equals more papers (theoretically) which leads to a perception of a more “successful” research group. That should increase the amount of funding. At the same time, the amount of time in the lab decreases, you are spread thinner for your students, and you become less effective at pushing the research focus where needed.

So what is the ideal group size? How has a smaller(larger) research group benefitted you?

1 comment:

  1. I had about 4-5 in my beginning years, now I am at 9-10 (1 postdoc) which is a bit much. I think maybe 6-7 (of which 1 postdoc) is the right size for me. Not too small for the students to feel isolated but not too large to not have the time or energy for all of them.