First-Time PI: Team Building (beta)
Updated: Nov 14
Starting June 2022, I had the opportunity to build my own team after I successfully secured the ESRC New Investigator grant. This grant will fund my research for the next three years to look at how our attitudes, societal norms, and how much ownership we take over our time for solitude can shape our experiences in it.
The project is between June 2022 and May 2025. At the start of the grant period, I have found myself excited and nervous to take on grant PI role for the first time. Luckily, before this, I have tried to learn as much as I possibly can through a few significant opportunities leading up to this funding. In my first six months at Durham University, a junior scholar from China, Tong Zhou, joined me and her presence in a way has made my beginning in a new country less lonely and isolating. Since 2020, I have been working with a PhD student, Paul Burgum, who is funded through the Durham Arctic programme. In 2021, I received some seedcorn funding from my university to work with a postgraduate research assistant, Ellen Taylor-Bower.
Through my work with all these junior researchers, I have had a lot of reflections on my role as supervisor – as someone who is accountable for their learning and experiences that they are likely to carry on to their future journey in academia. It is interesting how much of leadership can be learned from your team members. These experiences and many earlier lessons from my heritage shape up the leader that I want to be and am trying to be. I hope to share a few insights below for your reflections.
Trust and respect
To me, these are the two most important elements when I build relationships. I have had my fair share of not feeling like I was given the basic trust and respect that I believe any person, regardless of where they are in life or career, should be entitled to. From my lived experiences, at times, niceness can come from a paternalistic, patronising place.
I remember a conversation I had with someone about a mutual friend who is going through tough time (whom I will refer to as Mai).
The person: “Don’t you feel pity for Mai?”
Me: “No. I know Mai is going through a tough time, but it’s not pity. No.”
The person: “Why not?”
Me: “Because I wouldn’t want someone to feel pity for me. Whatever place someone is in their life, even though they might not be in the same privileged position as everyone else, we are all entitled to our dignity.”
I have always felt that way. So, I decide to choose trust and respect as the foundation for all my relationships, including the ones I have built in academia. Trust and respect have allowed me and my team to share honestly about our life circumstances and our #neurodiversity, which come with the flexibility that we each need to function optimally in our roles. This brings me to the next point…
Know my role, do it well, and not take on other people’s roles
Growing up in Vietnam when the country was recovering from the war, I was taught this one saying: “Small people do small work, contribute accordingly to your capacity” (“Tuổi nhỏ làm việc nhỏ, tùy theo sức của mình”). This meant to communicate that anyone, in no matter what position, can contribute, so always try to contribute whatever you are capable of. From that saying, I learn that everyone has a role to play in our team, our organisation, our society. As such, in any spaces I enter, I learn my role and will proceed to act accordingly to my role.
During my PhD training, I learn and do everything for my project myself. I was the PI, the research assistant, the lead author all at once. It was a one-person show. Once I started my permanent post at Durham and working with research assistants, I found myself having to learn to delegate. It was helpful that all the research assistants I have worked with always tell me: “Don’t worry I will do this. It would be helpful if you could do this and that [and they assign me tasks ^_^].” Over time, I come to realise, if I do everything, I take away others’ learning opportunities as well as mine. I learn to let go of my urge to control every aspect of my project. I learn to delegate. The trust and respect we share make it easier.
Build a sustainable infrastructure for effective collaboration
Trust and respect serve as the foundation. Task delegation serves as the methodology. What we also need is a sustainable infrastructure that helps us all communicate and collaborate on tasks and share files efficiently and effectively.
Between June 2022 and now, building this infrastructure is what I invest most of my mental energy. This is mainly driven by my need for structured communication. I am one who cannot handle too many communication channels at once otherwise I get overwhelmed and frustrated. I also struggle to follow conversations with many ideas and thoughts thrown in without a clear and coherent goal of what the conversation is trying to accomplish. For that reason, I commit to keep all my communications with others structured, from the emails I send to the way I speak in meetings.
Knowing myself, I have decided to use SharePoint and Team as two platforms to build my infrastructure. Our team share all our files on SharePoint. Files are organised by projects and phases within each projects (e.g., planning, ethics, protocol). Once we have everything saved on SharePoint, our team members do not share static files over emails, but instead copy and paste the links to SharePoint documents into our emails. This makes version control easier, such that we can see new changes on the same file as all team members continue to work on the document (instead of having to continue saving new updated files with new file names e.g., _final, _finalfinal, _finalFINAL).
SharePoint also has a feature called OneNote, which we used to document the decisions we make along the way as the project matures over time. This was inspired by Dr. Lorne Campbell’s Open Notebook. I have first tried this with previous postgraduate research assistant, Ellen Taylor-Bower, and I realised how quickly we forget the decisions we make along the way. By keeping a diary of all these decisions, I was able to go back to why we made certain methodology decisions as I wrote up the Method section of the manuscript.
Team is linked to SharePoint. All the files shared on SharePoint can also be linked to Team. Team allows for spontaneous communication using the messaging function. For our lab, we have found the Tasks by Planner helpful to assign tasks to team members. I am currently testing out this task assignment add-on in Team with the postdoc Delali Konu and senior research assistant Pearl Tshimbalanga. This add-on has made things easier in term of knowing who are responsible for what. Not only this gives us the satisfaction of ticking off tasks that each of us has completed, but it also gives us a sense of accountability: I know that I need to complete certain tasks for my team members to start on theirs.
Build a peer learning community
There have been times in my academic journey when I felt isolated. There have been times when I feel like I am part of a learning community. The difference is huge. We all have our own projects to work on, but we all have feedback and thoughts that we can contribute to others’ projects. Such learning community creates a collaborative research culture that helps us feel challenged and vital.
Starting October 2022, I officially joined forces with Dr. Jonathon McPhetres to run bi-weekly group meetings with all our lab members, including postdoc, postgraduate researchers (i.e., PhD candidates), postgraduate and undergraduate assistants. We named our group the Behaviour and Physiology Group, capitalizing on my research focus on behaviours (e.g., solitude-seeking as a behaviour and behaviours in solitude) and McPhetres’ focus on physiological processes (e.g., related to stress and goosebumps). In each meeting, one group member will present on a project they are working on. In the first meeting, Halo Gao (2nd year undergraduate) presented her research idea on looking at piloerection (aka goosebumps) after repeated exposure of emotional moving stimuli. In the second meeting, Delali Konu (postdoc) talked about her PhD thesis on characteristics of self-generated thoughts, contexts and brain activation associated with self-generated thoughts. In the first meeting, Nicole Kemp (3rd year undergraduate) presented her project on physiological indicators of affective arousal and valence. We keep presentations within 20 minutes to allow plenty of time for discussions.
With these meetings, McPhetres and I hope to accomplish the following goals:
1) All lab members will hear about, discuss, and feedback on a variety of different ideas that their teammates work on. While the projects might not be what they are working on, we want to create a culture that we can be open and helpful to each others.
2) For those who are new to academic research, we hope that they are exposed to different presentation styles of researchers at different career stages.
3) Finally, we value peer mentorship and encourage everyone to take advantages of this learning community for advice on research and career development.
Our group meetings have been going on for a month; McPhetres and I have been most satisfied with the fact that the discussions so far have been driven by our junior teammates instead of us - the two assistant professors that are still very much early in our career and hope to continue learning from our junior colleagues to shape the leaders that we want to be.
If you have continued to read this far, thank you for reading and I hope the insights I share here have been helpful.