A Functional Research Group

Research group

This article describes functioning of a research group, in order to a doctoral student to understand, what to expect and to appreciate what is expected from him/her. Also, at the end of the article, few tips are given on how to cope with unwanted situations.

A high level research group aims towards excellence in its own field. This type of group tries to recruit talented people interested in a long-term research career. A high level research group tries to secure funding and enable the researchers to concentrate on their research duties.

In order to develop further and obtain results, the group functions in a disciplined and planned manner. Ready pathways are considered beforehand for young researchers joining the group, and their working is guided. A newcomer writes his personal study plan that is an integral part of the long term plans of the group. The student becomes an important part of the group / project.

A high level research group includes doctoral students at different stages of their career. This enables co-supervision, mentoring, and lecturing.

The role of a supervisor

The supervisor is especially important for a doctoral student and, consequently, each doctoral student has a named supervisor. Research programmes are owned by the group leaders supervising doctoral students and, hence, it is them who choose the newcomers. It is the supervisor who informs the student on the aims and what he/she will be working on. The supervisor organises regular meetings with the doctoral student, at least biweekly.

It is essential for a doctoral student to learn to conduct research scientifically, to write and publish his/her results, network with other researchers and relevant interest bodies, and how to apply for funding. The supervisor has a vital role in supporting this learning process.

The role of the student in the group increases as time passes – in the beginning the role of the supervisor is greater, later the student takes on more responsibility. A supervisor should never be too busy and should always have time for his/her doctoral students. It is typically a target for a supervisor to have one doctoral student graduating annually. This leads to a supervisor simultaneously having approx. five doctoral students of different stages. If the supervisor allocates about twenty percent of his/her working time for tutoring, this would result in a doctoral student having a right to expect 1.5 hours a week, or some two months of one-to-one personal instruction during a four year period.

Research plan

The research plan is a plan for the realisation of research, and the doctoral dissertation and scientific articles are among its important milestones. The importance of a well written research plan is highlighted in high level research groups. A student writes his/her research plan on a given project together with the supervisor. The research plan should be clear, but should not be considered as definite until the research ends. The research plan should be detailed for the present and near future, but less detailed for longer term.

Unfortunately, a researcher does not always find an ideal research group, or finds himself/herself in a non-ideal situation. If this is the case, you probably have two choices, either to leave for elsewhere, or find ways to at least reach the goal of obtaining a doctoral degree.

If you decide to continue and an optimally functioning research group cannot be found, aim to group with others by other means. It is beneficial to have a close group of colleagues to cooperate with while writing your dissertations. Feedback on your research and discussions with colleagues are invaluable for the progress of your articles and doctoral dissertation, especially when the feedback is documented and analysed systematically.

Especially in contract-oriented research groups, in order to obtain funding, a doctoral student is sometimes employed by a unit working on a dispersed set of projects, not optimally supporting his/her dissertation. In these cases, it may be that scientific publications are not fully encouraged. Regardless of this non-optimal situation, try to find synergies between project work and the writing of your dissertation. Too often, a doctoral student only carries out documentations required by the project, and only afterwards starts progressing his/her own dissertation. In order to obtain a pay check, a researcher often has to familiarise himself/herself with a new project at this point, and does not utilise the results of the previous project in academic publications. Instead, a doctoral student should work to integrate project work and dissertation work by combining project reporting and academic writing. Sometimes, academic articles are accepted as a part of project reporting. If this is not possible, utilise common elements, as much as possible, in both articles and project reports.

A doctoral student writing his/her dissertation as a monograph is sometimes left alone with the work and the standard of the manuscript is assessed too late. Another risk of a monograph is that the results can become obsolete if the writing process takes too long time. In cases with adequate supervision, these problems will not occur. In worst case, when left alone, the author conducts enormous amounts of wasted work if the standard of the manuscript is not good enough and re-writing is required. It can be difficult to successfully manage hundreds of pages of text at once, when revising a monograph. However, when successful, the workload may be smaller for a monograph than for a compilation dissertation. On the other hand, a doctoral student writing a compilation dissertation, comprising of a number of scientific articles, may find it easier to obtain “friends” to assess the quality of the text. Having one’s name on an academic article is a merit for all authors. Consequently, it is in most cases relatively easy to find motivated co­authors. It is in many cases up to you, with whom you decide to work.

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