Joining A Research Team Post PhD

Academic research is increasingly collaborative across all disciplines.1,2,3,4 Yet being more collaborative does not necessarily increase productivity – certainly not on a per-author basis.5

Thus, as an ECR or PhD student it is a legitimate question to ask – should I join a team, build a team or go it alone? 

Join a team

For most PhD graduates6, the first and easiest step post PhD is to join a team. Another researchers will have written a grant with an unfilled position; they might advertise; and you might apply for the role of PostDoc on that project. Or you could know of someone looking for a researcher – directly or indirectly. Or you might just stay with the supervisor you did your PhD with.

In some respects joining a team could be considered the do-nothing approach. It is what happens if I take no active part in deciding what happens next. It is not a poor or bad choice; it is just an easy one to make.

Joining a team has benefits, particularly if you know what you want to do longer term. It is an opportunity to hone your existing skills, and develop new ones. Although most people are thinking about research skills, if your longer term ambition is to be an independent researcher or to lead a research group, the time in a team should be used to:

  • Continue to develop your research skills – you’ll know that there are some areas you could still work on. Or perhaps you found a team that would develop a new skill. So, make sure you capitalise on building those research skills, so you can take them to your next role.
  • Develop leadership skills – whether you’re on your own on head of a group you’ll need to be able to lead research collaborations. Thus, learning to lead is essential.
  • Improve your grant writing – it is almost impossible to get a salaried research-only position in the first few years post your PhD. And, it is almost impossible to get a salaried research-only position without a strong track record of grant, and publication success. Thus, getting good at writing grants is essential.
  • Manage money – all projects have budgets. Although universities have financial officers their role is to add up the numbers, not to make sure the money is not over (or under) spent. Thus, developing your money management skills will help ensure you have a financially sustainable research project (inside a team, within a collaboration or on your own).
  • Understand your preferences – as a PhD student you may have had a taste of supervision, teaching and/or administration. But joining a team, and taking on those specific roles will give you a much better idea of what your life might be like if you were to manage your own research group, transition to a teaching and research position, or to take on an academic support role. Of course, continuing to develop your understanding of what it means to be a team/collaboration member is also important.
  • Get a fellowship – this will help fund your salary and further develop you skills as an independent researcher. It will also allow you to more easily move groups or employers should that take your fancy.

Beyond joining a team academics do many things – from going it alone to building a research group to taking on a specialist research role as technical or administrative support. Not to mention finding that they love being in a team and maintaining that role – one of team member – for many years.

Networking is the key

to finding a new team to

work in after your PhD

How to join a team

Joining a research team is essentially a game of networking and job-hunting. Networking will increase the chances of finding a team to work in and job hunting is a more formal version of the same thing. For those considering joining a research team I recommend:

  1. Know what kind of team you want to be part of. This covers whatever aspects of teamwork you feel are important. For example, it could be size (3 or 30). It could be location (metro or regional; country or language spoken). It could be track record (e.g. industry engagement, publication). It could be staffing mix (lots of PhDs or not many). It could be the university it is based in. It could be their views on using social and other new media (e.g. websites, blogs, videos etc). It could be how they work together. It could be professional development opportunities. The goal is to describe the perfect team, not to find it. Thus, prioritisation is important (you won’t be able to have everything). So is succinctly being able to describe this team.
  2. Know what kind of research you want to be involved in. This, again, covers whatever aspects of research are important to you. Techniques. Skills. Equipment. With/without animals. Topic. Impact. Industry partners. Like with the team, the goal is to describe the perfect research, not to find it (you won’t be able to have everything). Prioritise, and practice writing/talking about it so you can express it succinctly.
  3. Network – be open to meeting new people. Particularly people in academic research. Talk to them about what they do, and who they work with and for. Let them know the team you want to be part of and the kind of research that is important to you. Although not all people can give you a job, know what you want (specifically) will help them refer you into the job or team you are after. Where possible, include your supervisors in this process and don’t make a decision for the other person. Don’t assume the answer will be no or I can’t help.
  4. Ask – a mistake we often make when looking for work is not asking for work. So, when you meet people (and when the time is right) tell them what you are looking for, and ask them if they know of something like that. As with networking, include your supervisors in this process and don’t make a decision for the other person. Don’t assume the answer will be no or I can’t help.
  5. Apply – job search is a key part of joining a team, especially if you are keen to leave where you undertook your PhD. So, you’ll need to keep an eye on the various jobs boards (e.g. seek, career one, LinkedIn) not to mention the individual websites of universities where they might advertise for fellowship positions or PostDocs.

Good luck! And as usual, let me know how it goes.


Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email (Richard.huysmans@ravencg.com.au) or subscribe to the newsletter. He’s on LinkedIn (Dr Richard Huysmans), Twitter (@richardhuysmans), Instagram (@drrichardhuysmans), and Facebook (Beyond Your PhD with Dr Richard Huysmans).


1Crouching Authors, Hidden Pitfalls: Collaboration in Research, Studi di Sociologia, 2018, DOI: 10.26350/000309_000041, https://poseidon01.ssrn.com/delivery.php?ID=492099070121004121114094107071071102096038020065064007072116070005075109067102016073103004116122038058047068002120123092000003041057031008018117013121089114004022021075033006127123117091071115009005081006003099077074079007023067117013099070006118082&EXT=pdf, accessed 5 Aug 2019

2A Bibliometric Study of Authorship and Collaboration Trends Over the Past 30 Years in Four Major Musculoskeletal Science Journals, Calcified Tissue International, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00223-018-0492-3, access 5 Aug 2019

3Comparative Analysis of Bibliometric, Authorship, and Collaboration Trends Over the Past 30-Year Publication History of the Journal of Orthopaedic Trauma and Injury https://journals.lww.com/jorthotrauma/Abstract/2018/08000/Comparative_Analysis_of_Bibliometric,_Authorship,.18.aspx, accessed 5 Aug 2019

4Researchers’ individual publication rate has not increased in a century, PLOS|ONE, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0149504, access 5 Aug 2019

5Researchers’ individual publication rate has not increased in a century, PLOS|ONE, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0149504, access 5 Aug 2019

6Data suggest 50% of graduates leave academic research within a year of graduating, thus, when I say most, I mean most of those who remain in academia.