How to nurture a happy and high performing research team


By Louise Durack

5 Feb 2020

Despite challenges such as reduced funding, workforce shortages and ‘publish or perish’ ethos it is possible to foster a high performing medical research team that is compatible with staff happiness and wellbeing.

This is the view of Deakin University’s Professor Kylie Ball in her paper: How to grow a successful – and happy – research team, in which she advocates for strategies that are feasible across various sectors but which are especially applicable within medicine.

Acknowledging the increasing pressures associated with research metrics and rankings, as well as new pressures associated with commercial and political demands, and a reduction in research funding, Professor Ball says that a strong research team doesn’t just happen.

“To grow research you need to grow and nurture researchers. This means more than the usual professional development opportunities, annual performance meetings, perks such as subsidised gym and childcare and performance bonuses.

“The competition for research funding, including amongst medical specialists/researchers, in Australia is increasingly intense. Expectations on researchers to be bringing in funding, as well as publishing research are escalating. There are also increasing pressures for researchers to demonstrate research impact – for instance, that their medical research is resulting in improvements in clinical practice.

“When building a research team, considering staff who have skills and potential in all of these areas is important. In our experience, leadership is key and research leaders should recruit staff who are caring, as well as competent, and who will contribute to a positive research culture and organisational success.

“Modern research leadership is not about being the most successful or highest-cited academic; it is about a commitment to supporting or developing others, and creating an environment in which they can succeed.

“Strategies should include expressing appreciation to staff for their efforts;  telling them what they value about them and modelling respectful treatment of colleagues; these all require very little, if any, additional time.

“Other strategies, such as adhering to sensible working hours and providing opportunities for career development conversations, can be heavily influenced by structural issues, but leaders can play a part in advocating for these where they are not part of current practice.”

Associate Professor Jeff Craig, from Deakin University’s School of Medicine, added support to the commentary and suggested that “the onus could be more on mentoring and training younger medical trainees, plus forging alliances with non-medical PhDs and their own hospital.

“But specialist doctors should keep in mind the same things as non-medical PhDs, which is around a focus on individual career development and a kindness culture etc.”

He also highlighted the main way that the medical profession differs with its research in that clinicians have to balance this with their clinical load. “In effect, they have to ‘buy’ their research time with competitive funds,” he says.

“Some universities and institutes target internal funds to research clinicians, which is good. But there’s a lot of competition for such funds, so probably a lot of anxiety for those clinicians who yearn to do research. Having said that, a clinician once said to me ‘it must be harder for you; if I don’t have research funding I can always fall back on my medical practice’.

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