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  • Destenie Nock

How do you manage a large research team?

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

Dr. Nock has worked with over 35 researchers and her current research group is 16 people. How does she manage such a large team, while not working on the weekends or having super long nights on the week days? The answer you seek lies in the blog post below.

By Dr. Destenie Nock

October 25, 2021


A seemingly simple question: Hey Dr. Nock how many researchers do you work with?

The answer that surprised both me and the person sitting across from me...16. In three years of being an Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon University how had I managed to grow my current research group to 3 postdoctoral fellows, 9 PhD students, 1 MS, and 3 BS students? And why on earth did I grow it so fast?

The person across the table said that was a crazy high number of people. I nodded my head in agreement. How did Past Destenie get me into this mess? Plus, the 16 failed to account for the number of students who worked with me for short stints over the summer or in previous years. It is one thing to work with and manage a lot of research assistants. It is a-whole-nother thing to do it well, while keeping your sanity, and mentoring each of them. Thus, we have reached the point of this post: lessons from my journey of learning how to lead a large team of super awesome, wickedly smart, but sometimes demanding-all-my-attention researchers.

If you have stuck with me this far I assume you want a quick dive into strategies for managing a large team of people. Well without further delay, here are the quick steps:

Step 1: Set people up for success by having a clear definitions of what success looks like.

One of the thing that is super helpful for setting up research projects for success is having clearly defined goals (i.e., SMART goals) for the project. Too often people discuss ideas, but don't write them down, which may lead to miscommunication of research goals down the line. Whenever I bring on a new student I take at least 1 hour to meet with them to discuss the research project, and answer any questions they might have. Then at the end of the meeting I ask them to send me an e-mail with a write up of the research question and goal of our project, as they understand it. This task should be completed outside of my office, but sent to me before our next meeting.

Normally when I get the student's e-mail it is a little vague, and sometimes contains ideas and questions I don't even remember us talking about. Then I send an e-mail in return with the clarified research question as I understand it. It is key to write it back to the person, because now these e-mails form your written contract. I am serious, writing things down is the key to making sure everyone is on the same page. Now let's say you have someone who knows the research question, but still feels super lost. This doesn't mean they can't do the work but sometimes people need a little nudge to get them going. That is when I might type up a one pager with a suggested list of things I might do to get the project going. These could include data that needs to be collected, papers to read (or key words to search for), and what models they should learn about.

Now let's say the student finishes the list of things to do, and comes back asking what to do next. Before I give them any more steps I ask them what they think they should do next. Be prepared to sit in an awkward silence until they answer. If they say I don't know, remind them that you didn't ask what they know they should do next, but instead what they think. Once they answer feel free to provide constructive and hopefully positive feedback. Your goal is to build the student up so one day they feel confident enough to plan out their own project. You cannot, I repeat cannot, manage a large team if you have to micromanage everybody. The earlier you empower others to be their own leaders, and manage their own projects, the better off you will be.

That being said when the student comes to me with their thoughts I try to pour in as much feedback and advice as I can. This means that when they send me a draft of a paper they think is ready to submit for publication, I try to give as many comments as possible and return the paper within a week. One success metric we set early on in my group is that success = paper submitted to a journal.

Step 2: Empower others to lead others.

One of the most valuable experiences in my PhD was watching my advisor mentor an undergrad, and then her giving me the opportunity to mentor undergrads. During my PhD a typical month would involve me meeting with the undergrad 2-3 times a week, and my advisor meeting with both me and the undergraduate researchers 1-2 times a month. My weekly meetings with the undergrads allowed me to have the opportunity to steer the project, while my advisors monthly meetings made sure the project did not derail down one of my rabbit holes. This was also beneficial for my advisor because meeting monthly meant she got a chance to course correct without having to steer the project.

In case you didn't sense my love of her method for empowering others to lead, let me be clear...I LOVED her method of letting me have a chance to practice managing and leading undergraduate projects. Why you ask? Because it gave me a chance to fail and grow as a mentor before I became an Assistant Professor and it was my full time job. Mentoring undergrads taught me a lot about how to hire people, when it might be good to fire someone (even though it is super hard), what personalities I work best with, and how to manage a project.

When I work with undergrad or masters students now, most of them are tied directly into one of my PhD students projects. The undergrads and masters students get something on their resume, the PhD students get to practice leading and help on their projects, and I get to work with even more wickedly smart people without completely spreading myself thin.

Step 3: Make sure you give everyone a piece of your time before giving it away to others.

Before you freak out about all the time management struggles let me say two things: First, anytime someone's success is linked to your success it is in your best interest to make sure they have everything they need to be as successful as possible. This includes your time, resources, and your wisdom. Second, giving your team your time does not mean you have to spend 30+ hours in meetings doing the research side by side with your students. The key is to have effective and efficient meetings. To help you meetings be effective I suggest asking anyone who wants to meet to bring an agenda. This means they will have thought about what they want to talk about before the meeting starts. Amazing how much time this saves.

To be efficient in meetings I suggest creating opportunities for people to learn from one another, and sometimes solve each other's problems. I have one big research group meeting every other week. Here the students get to talk about anything on their minds, or I do professional development activities. This might be having some of them present preliminary work, or helping them find better work life balance, so that they don't come into research meetings freaked out with imposter syndrome thinking they have not done enough work.

Now with each person having their own project I cannot avoid or neglect the importance of individual time. For the postdocs normally this time is scheduled as needed since they are more independent. Each PhD student has an individual meeting that can last anywhere from 30 min - 1 hour depending on how much they have to talk about. I also realized that some students work better on a weekly timeline while others do better meeting every other week. I found that having designated time for each person is key to building trust and strong relationships because the students get feedback early and often. This reduces the risk of them derailing or getting stuck on something for too long. I know some professors prefer to meet less, but as a new assistant professor on the tenure track, I cannot afford to risk any of these projects falling behind. Besides, I hired all of these super smart people because I wanted to hang out with them while solving engineering's most pressing energy justice, sustainability, and equality problems.

Remember every student is different, and the optimal meeting will vary

Step 4: Don't do it alone

While I have 9 PhD students, 6 of these students are co-advised. This means that these students have at least two people committed to helping them succeed, guiding the project, and helping edit that paper. I love my colleagues and collaborators because without them I could not manage so many students.

Step 5: Say no to things

Saying no is crazy hard in academia, because everything sounds like a great opportunity. The problem is every time you say yes to something you have said no to something else. Sometimes this means that you work long hours sacrificing your health and family ties. Other times it might mean that you said yes to so many work projects, that you cannot execute any of them effectively. The truth is that each person has a finite number of heart beats in this world, and you want to make sure you use them where they count. So when you say no to something, you are really opening the door to say yes to something you really care about.

I get it though! Saying no is still super hard. Check out this convenient list of different ways to say no:

  1. No. (then sit in silence)

  2. I'm honored but I can't due to other time commitments.

  3. Unfortunately, I cannot commit to joining this endeavor at this time.

  4. I am doing X and Y. I understand Z is very important so which one would you like me to give up (X or Y) to do Z?

  5. Sadly, I have something else scheduled at that time.

  6. No, but please consider me in the future.

  7. I cannot this semester/month, but I can next semester. (Only do this if you actually want to do it).

  8. Thanks for thinking of me, but I can’t

  9. This sounds like a wonderful opportunity, unfortunately I cannot commit at this time. That being said I would like to nominate Person A who I think would be great at this.

  10. I do not think I am the right person for this job. Have you considered Person B.

To get better at saying no, one thing I have done is keep a list of things and projects I am working on. Then I ask myself if I would be willing to give any of them up to take on this new opportunity. If I do not want to give anything up then I look at my calendar to see if it will fit in. My goal is to not work on weekends or after 6 pm. That limit on my calendar is key to ensuring that my home life is just as good as my work life. When you are on your time management journey just remember: you can do anything, but you can't do everything!

"Each person has a finite number of heart beats in this world...use them where they count. "

Step 6: Learn from the research of others.

I do not claim to be a leadership expert. I am just someone who is trying to reach her optimal level of success, while bring her research team and some of the broader academic community with her. To build my leadership skills I took a deep dive into podcasts and audio books. I highly recommend Libby to get audio and e-books through your local library.

  1. A key to group production is building trust in teams, cultivating strong relationships with those who report directly to you, and giving better feedback. One of the most challenging things is giving direct, clear, honest feedback. Especially if you are worried about how people will react. The book "Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity" by Kim Scott discusses team and trust building as well as giving candid feedback.

  2. Good book for minority academics: The Black Academic's Guide to Winning tenure without losing your soul. It covers the hidden curriculum, and how to deal with microaggressions/racism/sexism in the workplace.

  3. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey is an oldie but goodie, and is great for getting your values in order, and deciding what principles you want to guide your life and career.

  4. Academic Womxn Amplified Podcast. One of my favorites for how to manage all of the writing projects is "Episode 88: It’s a Pipeline, Not a Funnel!". For thinking about what you want your career to look like check out "Episode 84: What Pre-Tenure Should Feel Like"

  5. Dare to Lead by Brené Brown is both a book and a podcast. I have only read the book, and highly recommend it for people who want to help their team develop into brave leaders, while creating courageous cultures.

  6. For teachers and lecturers I love the Lecture Breakers Podcast by Barbi Honeycutt. It really helps with designing a more effective classroom and lessons.

Final Thoughts

In summary, managing a large research time, is really about being a good project manager, while building positive relationships with those that work with you. While I love my large team, I am not going to lie, it is a ton of work and often I feel exhausted. That being said I still manage to avoid working on the weekends and often can leave my office by 5 or 6 pm every evening. I never planned to have a large team, it was more of a happy accident that resulted from meeting super awesome, crazy smart people who wanted to work on the worlds most pressing energy, equity and sustainability problems.

Now that we have finished our dive in professional development, let's take a second for a quick news and research update!

New paper published in iScience:

My co-authors and I ( a joint collaboration of researchers at University of Maryland College Park and Carnegie Mellon University) just published a new open access paper in the Cell Press journal iScience today on the inequitable and heterogeneous impacts on electricity consumption from COVID-19 mitigation measures. Paper summary:

This paper provides robust empirical evidence of the degree to which COVID-19 mitigation measures, especially the mandates of school closure and limiting business operations, have impacted electricity consumption behavior in low-income and ethnic minority groups in the United States. We use a regression discontinuity design applied to individual-consumer-level high-frequency smart meter data in Arizona and Illinois to highlight the disparities in mitigation measure impacts. We find that the mandates of school closures and limiting business operations increase residential electricity consumption by 4–5%, but reduce commercial electricity consumption by 5–8%. Considerable heterogeneity is observed across income and race: low-income and ethnic-minority populations experience a larger electricity consumption increase, reflecting the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on electricity insecurity in the residential sector. Policies that address energy insecurity, especially during the pandemic, become essentially important.

Lou, J., Qiu, Y. L., Ku, A. L., Nock, D., & Xing, B. "Inequitable and Heterogeneous Impacts on Electricity Consumption from COVID-19 Mitigation Measures." iScience (2021)

Recent News appearances:

  1. Academic Minute: Discussing my energy poverty work

  2. NPR: Power Grids Feel The Pressure Of Intense Storms Driven By Climate Change. Sept 2, 2021. Link

  3. NPR: After Hurricane Ida Failures, Calls Grow For A Probe Into New Orleans' Power Company. Sept 22, 2021. Link

  4. The Big Switch is a new podcast which is focused on the energy transition. In this episode titled "Regulation: Why the Rules Matter" I discuss how rules and regulations impact grid operations and discuss the key players who decide how the grid operates..

  5. In a recent talk on the Energy Gang Podcast I discuss how to measure energy poverty and plan for an equitable energy transition in the episode titled "Tracking the Equity Outcome of Decarbonization". I also discuss the recent Infrastructure Bill and what I think the nation needs to prioritize for their infrastructure investments and a more equitable low carbon future.

Thanks for reading! To get more updates follow me on Twitter @DestenieNock, or subscribe below.

Note about the Author: Dr. Destenie Nock is an Assistant Professor in Civil & Environmental Engineering and Engineering & Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Her current research is focused on understanding sustainability and equality trade-offs in energy transitions. Her research is computational in nature and involved creating mathematical models which simulate electricity systems and evaluated them in terms of their sustainability and equality. Her papers detailing the research she completed in energy justice, sustainability evaluation, and electricity modeling can be found here, and on her Google Scholar page. Fun fact: Dr. Nock is the first African-American women hired into a tenure track Assistant Professor role by the College of Engineering at CMU, along with Elizabeth Wayne.

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