Making the Most of Student Research Teams

By Lindsay Fallon, University of Massachusetts Boston

Contributors: Drs. Bridget Dever (Lehigh University), Bridget Hier (University of Buffalo), Shane Jimerson (University of California – Santa Barbara), and Faith Miller (University of Minnesota – Twin Cities)

Early career faculty may enter into an academic position excited to have student support to assist with research activities. Yet, as the semester begins, questions may surface — including what projects to tackle, how to divide tasks, and what level of supervision is needed. As a result, early career faculty may wonder how to make the most of their research team experience. I asked four faculty members who have found success in this area to share their tips. Overall, their message was simple: a productive, efficient student research team is often the result of organization, effort, and time.

Specifically, our experts suggested that early career faculty might

  • Build students’ research skills strategically. Teach concrete tasks initially (e.g., how to conduct a literature search) and strive to mentor students to engage in more complex processes (e.g., conceptualizing a research study) when ready and appropriate.
  • Invest time in organizing and planning research team systems (e.g., regular meeting time, structure, agenda, shared cloud space) to maximize productivity.
  • Have clear team/lab goals that can be tracked with data.
  • Be explicit about expectations and lead by example.
  • Train students to engage in vertical mentorship across cohorts as it can be mutually beneficial. Consider opportunities for leadership on the team, too.
  • Find interested student collaborators by spreading the word about your work. If you are without funded research assistants, seek student volunteers by visiting classes and talking with students about your projects.
  • Celebrate successes and show appreciation! Enjoy and acknowledge the team’s collaborative efforts.

Below are the panel’s complete thoughts. (Also, a pro tip from Dr. Dever is to start at the end of this post and work your way backwards. She reminds us that building a research team is indeed a deliberate, comprehensive process!)

  1. How would you describe your research team or lab? How many students are involved, how frequently do you meet, and what is your focus?

BD: My research team is large and vibrant, including nine doctoral students and two undergraduate students. This semester we have a new and substantial data collection project, so we have been meeting weekly for an hour as a team.  During [our weekly] meetings, we focus on issues related to [the] new project for the most part, but I also try to leave 10-15 minutes at the end for students to raise questions or concerns “for the good of the group.”  I feel that this has been helpful for group advising, as students will typically bring up questions that are useful to discuss as a group in order to get other students’ perspectives.

BH: My research team currently consists of three Ph.D. students, eight master’s students, and 14 undergraduate research assistants (RAs). We meet weekly so that I can review what was completed the prior week, discuss what needs to be completed in the upcoming week, provide direct training on new tasks when needed, provide feedback and reminders, and answer questions.

SJ: I would describe my / our research team as a group of vibrant, passionate, curious problem solvers who are committed to applied scholarship that advances science and informs practice to promote the social, cognitive, and academic development of all children (with a particular focus on students from disadvantaged backgrounds). Team members include graduate students, undergraduate students, and often includes visiting scholars and collaborations with other colleagues.

Our research team motto is — Show Me the Data. Some of our guiding principles include Data over Dogma, Reality over Rhetoric, and What’s next? We meet at least once a week (have met almost every Friday for the past 22 years, and I had met for research team meeting every Friday in graduate school for the preceding 5 years), and typically have subgroups of the team who also meet separately each week.

In addition, I meet individually with research team members each week, typically more meetings with the graduate students. The focus of each of our meetings addresses contemporary topics related to each of the projects. For instance, depending upon the particular project, we may discuss theoretical foundations, relevant research, literature review, methods, institutional review procedures, data collection procedures, measures, collaboration with administrators/teachers, key questions, hypotheses, data collection, data management, analyses, interpretation of findings, preparation of posters and paper presentations, and preparation of manuscripts. Often our weekly meetings will include several of these topics across multiple projects.

FM: My lab, the School Mental Health AIMS (Assessment and Intervention in Multi-tiered Systems of Support) Lab, focuses on advancing evidence-based practices in early identification and intervention for social-emotional and behavioral difficulties in schools. My group typically consists of four to nine graduate students, and we have a standing meeting throughout the academic year that occurs bi-weekly for two hours. The purpose of my lab is twofold: 1) to support students’ independent research and 2) to provide scaffolded opportunities for students to gain research experience with my projects. To this end, my team engages in all stages of the research production process – from conceptualization to dissemination.

  1. Tell us a little about the type of research students conduct and/or coordinate.

BD: This answer depends on the students’ experiences and also the source of the students’ funding. Students coordinate projects [from which funding is derived] and supervise data collection and entry efforts, which are largely already in place from work done in previous years.

In terms of independent research projects for students, this very much depends on student experience/years in the program. Keep in mind that for graduate students, most of Year 1 is spent learning the basics – yes of research, but also of [my] research team, mentoring style, the program, the University, and in many cases a new area. By the end of Year 1, my hope is that doctoral students have started to develop their own independent research question(s) using one of my datasets, so that we can work together to draft a NASP proposal early that summer. This looks similar for Ed.S. students who are involved with my research as well. In Year 2, students flesh their ideas out further, and if all goes well, they present their research project at NASP. For doctoral students, the goal is to have a compete manuscript written late in Year 2 or early in Year 3, as an independent research paper is one of the requirements of our program. That manuscript then gets revised in Year 3, and I work with my students to aim for publication in Year 4. That is typically simultaneous with thinking about their own dissertations, for which the students really “take the wheel.”  All of these are rough estimates of course, but I think having a roadmap in mind helps to keep both you and the student on track.

Usually once students have their first NASP experience, they also work on smaller projects along the way to get more conference opportunities, and often these are collaborative efforts on posters and papers that are led by myself or another student. The goal is to scaffold research experiences so that each student is developing the skills that match with his/her own level of expertise with data management, analysis, technical writing, and research goals during any given year. For doctoral students, the expectation is that by the time they begin their dissertation they will have the skillset to work on their research fairly independently, with guidance and feedback from me as needed along the way.

BH: The students’ research responsibilities vary as a function of training and experience.  Generally, the graduate students are trained to implement the intervention protocols in the schools, and the undergraduate students are trained to conduct fidelity assessments.  Everyone is trained to score our dependent measures, and a subset of the research team is trained to enter the data.

SJ: Students participate in all aspects of the research initiatives. Each of these are field-based, applied, developmental science initiatives focused on promoting the social, cognitive, behavioral, and academic development of children. Granted, their participation and contributions vary by their level of development and previous experiences. For some, specific content is way beyond their zone of proximal development, however, I believe that being involved in the discussions and then subsequent tutorials / collaboration with more advanced students provides the necessary scaffolding to facilitate their development of the skills.

When discussing topics with team members, I expect that those with knowledge and understanding of the specifics will be highly engaged during the group discussions and that they will also spend additional time with other team members outside of the team meeting to help further develop relevant skills and knowledge. Each member of the team brings specific skills, knowledge and experiences. Each of the graduate students typically have many more research related skills compared to the undergraduate students, however, this is not always the case for specific skills. The emphasis of our research team is to embrace the strengths that each team member brings to the table, and engage all in activities that will further develop their knowledge and skills.

FM: Within my lab, we use diverse research methodologies ranging from single-case design intervention studies, to meta-analyses, to large N assessment studies. Consequently, students are exposed to a variety of different research methods and approaches, as well as the strengths and difficulties associated with them. I think this exposure is really important from the time students start attending graduate school. When it comes time for them to conduct their first original independent research project (their thesis), they will have a better understanding of the kinds of research questions that can be answered using different methods. This exposure is also beneficial in helping to train well-rounded scholars who can advance the science and practice of school psychology. In addition to exposure to diverse research methodologies, I aim to tailor student research experiences based on their current developmental level and training. Given the scaffolded and vertical mentoring structure of my research team, experiences are appropriately matched to the student’s developmental level. For example, first year graduate students often complete relatively concrete activities, such as conducting literature searches, creating annotated bibliographies, reviewing psychometric properties of assessments, and building tables and figures, while advanced students complete more complex and abstract activities.

  1. How is mentorship built in to your research team structure?

BD: Mentorship is the thing that holds the team together, and keeps us moving forward both individually and as a system. I work to provide students with opportunities to not only assist with tasks such as data collection and entry, but also to include them in conference presentations and as coauthors on manuscripts. I take a mentorship role in my students’ independent research, which includes encouraging them to take on their own projects or pieces of projects, setting clear and meaningful deadlines, and holding myself accountable to students for timely feedback. Of course, it is also important to provide opportunities for face-to-face mentorship as well. Some students meet with me individually as often as twice a month, depending on their own needs and projects. I also rely on my more experienced students to provide mentorship as appropriate to newer students on the team.

In addition, as needed, I provide opportunities for students to practice presenting to the group before conferences or proposal meetings so that they can get feedback on their research and presentation skills from me and their peers in a non-evaluative setting. Finally, I try to meet with my research team off-campus once a semester both as a celebration and as an opportunity for cross-cohort advising and mentorship. Sometimes I think we all get so wrapped up in our work during the semester, so it’s nice to take some time socially away from the classroom setting to get to know each other and connect as human beings. The cross-cohort connections are especially critical. Students earlier in their trajectories benefit from hearing about how others made it through their classes, milestones, etc. (and relatively unscathed, we hope!) in order to demystify the process of grad school. I also host a similar social event for my research team at NASP — it’s a huge accomplishment for students to present their work to a national audience, and I think it’s important to celebrate that success as a team.

BH: Graduate students, and even undergraduate RAs, who perform strongly in terms of their accuracy and reliability with research tasks are selected for leadership roles within the team. Those individuals gain experience training the other RAs, monitoring accuracy of the research tasks, and holding feedback meetings.

Students also gain mentoring experience with conference presentations.  The doctoral students are expected to present our research at NASP as well as local conferences.  Through that experience, they mentor master’s students in how to conceptualize a research question, conduct analyses, and prepare for a presentation.

Aside from mentorship around research tasks, we also provide undergraduate RAs with mentorship around applying to graduate school.  Each year, I conduct a seminar during one of our research team meetings on considerations for graduate school, how to apply, and what to expect.  The graduate students edit the undergraduate students’ CVs and personal statements, and they conduct mock interviews to help the RAs prepare.

SJ: Mentoring on my / our research team is characterized by being both sensitive and responsive to the individual strengths and needs of each of the students. Mentorship is the core of all our collaborative activities. Those with more experience, skills, and knowledge with particular activities/topics are expected to provide leadership. This includes active participation during team meetings, arranging for additional sessions with others who are ready to engage in further learning to build their knowledge of particular skills and knowledge. As a faculty member, I intend to mentor each of the graduate and undergraduate students in both personal and professional development. It is also expected that the graduate students will mentor each other as related to specific tasks, skills, and knowledge throughout graduate school. In addition, graduate students are expected to mentor undergraduate students collaborating with us on various projects. Also, experienced undergraduate research assistants are expected to mentor incoming undergraduate research assistants. Mentoring and support is emphasized throughout all team activities. I provide specific direction and support for graduate students and undergraduate students regarding mentoring other students, and I am also sensitive and responsive to their mentoring challenges and needs to help support them in this process.

FM: In addition to the mentorship that I provide to students directly, I have found that a vertical team structure is helpful. Within this structure, more advanced students in the program serve as mentors to students who are newer to the program. I have found this vertical peer mentoring structure beneficial in numerous ways: in enhancing the capacity of our team, in building a sense of camaraderie as opposed to competitiveness, in reducing anxiety surrounding conducting independent research, and in learning vicariously from others’ experience. Vertical mentoring occurs in a few different ways in my lab, including: (a) in advanced students sharing their progress, successes, and challenges with the group, (b) in novice students asking process-oriented questions to advanced students, (c) in viewing my role as facilitator to these interactions and in building these connections through our group discussions, and (d) encouraging students to support each other in their work, including peer-review of written products and assisting with data collection efforts. Essentially, the giving and receiving of mentorship has become a group norm in my lab.

  1. How do you maximize efficiency and productivity with your team?

BD: Full disclosure – I think we are all constantly trying to improve our efficiency and productivity, and I’m not sure that ever goes away. I’m excited to see what others say about this, because I feel like there’s still a lot for me to learn as well. That being said, here are some strategies that have helped me to feel somewhat more efficient and productive as a mentor. First, meet only when you need to meet. Just as faculty members get frustrated with service commitments that just check a box, our students’ time is valuable and should be respected. Sometimes this means canceling a team meeting or just meeting with a small subset of team members. Second, when you do meet, take the time to draft an agenda or list of goals for the meeting in advance. Having even an informal agenda in mind helps make efficient and productive use of everyone’s time in each meeting. Third, have mechanisms in place for students to transfer knowledge to one another; once you have an advanced student or two on the team, allow them to take more responsibility for training and mentoring the others. Finally, envision each students’ independent research projects as publications, and keep that vision in mind every step of the way. Treating those posters, presentations, qualifying projects, etc. as future publications from the beginning will help everyone’s productivity, as well as structure your mentoring of students through the entire process from research idea to seeing their work in print. From day one, I ask my students to consider what they want to be “the expert in” when they graduate. Of course that may change along the way, but I think helping students to see that their posters, papers, projects, presentations, and other research activities should tell a story about them as a researcher empowers students to see how these experiences are linked and map onto a larger goal (rather than being isolated events/experiences).

BH: I typically prefer to have roughly six undergraduate RAs on my team at a time to maximize efficiency, as more RAs equals more training, more supervision, and more double-checking of accuracy. However, I currently have more than double that amount due to the nature of a large, labor-intensive longitudinal RCT I am completing. To be able to manage that amount of people, I created three sub-teams, which each have specific tasks and are each managed by two graduate students. The Scoring Team is responsible for scoring our research participants’ weekly CBM-writing progress monitoring data. Once that is complete, they give the data to the Data Entry team for initial entry and double-checking. The Dissemination Team is then responsible for graphing the student participants’ progress monitoring data so I can share those data with our school partners for instructional decision-making (which is cleared by the IRB in advance). The graduate students who lead each of those teams are responsible for training their teams, monitoring task accuracy, conducting feedback meetings with the RAs, and holding weekly meetings to review upcoming tasks. I meet weekly with the graduate students to supervise their supervision of the RAs.

SJ: Excellence is expected — anything worth doing is worth doing well. There are 86,400 seconds each day, therefore, we establish clear timelines and objectives and communicate frequently. It is expected that tasks will be completed on-time, and when needed, additional support and scaffolding is provided to actualize each objective in a timely manner. The weekly meetings and mid-week meetings between individuals is helpful to establish clear timelines and being certain that activities are completed in advance of the upcoming team meeting.

FM: Building a structure to support these efforts is really important. So, for example, we always start lab meetings with student updates on independent research projects, which includes discussion of progress, successes and challenges, and an opportunity for group problem-solving. Next, we move to lab projects currently in progress, with a point-person assigned to each project who is responsible for updating the team and developing action items regarding next steps to move the project forward. Organization is also key to facilitate efficiency and productivity: we have a Google Team Drive for our lab with all materials readily accessible, we keep detailed meeting minutes, and review action items at the end of every lab meeting.

  1. What is important for early career faculty to consider when starting their research team or lab?

BD: As an Early Career faculty member, you may only have one or two students and you will be the sole mentor on the team. I think a trap a lot of us fall into (myself included) is doing a short-term cost-benefit analysis and deciding that rather than delegate to students, “it’ll be quicker to just do it myself.” This is particularly true when beginning a research team, as you are likely trying to develop your own research agenda and may feel like you don’t have the time to invest in training a student from the ground up. In the short-term, you may be right – in fact, you may be able to crank out the output you need much more quickly than it would take to both train the student and then have the student do the task independently. However, I strongly recommend shifting your perspective to the long game, as you’re likely going to be at this whole research thing for a while. In the long-term, it will be much more efficient and productive to sit with your students and involve them in every step of the research process early on. Not only will they appreciate the experiences and learn so much from you, later on down the road they will be able to share their expertise with other students, lightening your load as a mentor. As you are getting started, it would be ideal if you could choose an incoming student or two to work with you based on matched research interests – but that doesn’t always work out. If your program does provide a graduate assistant, often Early Career faculty think that requesting a more advanced student would be best in order to get someone on board who has already developed some research skills. Again, I’m going to encourage you to play the long game, and to see your new graduate assistant as someone who ideally would be with you for four or five years. So if you’re given the opportunity, request a student who is at the beginning of his/her training, and really spend the time training that student and encouraging him/her to get excited about research. This will require an investment of your time now, but in two or three years you will be in a great position to delegate and expand your research team.

I know that not all early career faculty members are in the position of having a funded graduate assistant. Don’t let that derail you from starting your research team! In my first year, the majority of my research team included graduate students who were volunteering their time to work on my project. As you’re starting out, talk to current students about your research.  Make shameless plugs about volunteer opportunities in your classes or larger program meetings that include students. Invite students to come talk with you about your work and how they might be able to connect and contribute to it. Keep in mind that while you are somewhat of an “unknown” among students when you are starting out, they are excited about a new faculty member joining the program. Making yourself approachable and giving students opportunities to work with you will go a long way in developing your reputation as a collaborator, which will encourage more students to want to work with you in the future.

BH: I find that the assistance of undergraduate RAs is imperative for getting my research completed. Oftentimes psychology majors are looking for research experience, and you may be able to send an email blast through the Psychology Department at your institution to recruit RAs. Most universities allow you to offer course credits for their work. I often try to recruit sophomores because once they are trained, they typically remain on the research team for three years and then are set up to enter graduate school with a fantastic skill set.

SJ: Be thoughtful and intentional about your infrastructure and expectations. Meet with your team members at least once a week as a group. Establish smaller group or individual meetings with team members each week, as there are some activities that are more efficient to address in a smaller group / individual context. Expect and scaffold more advanced research team members in mentoring and supervising activities of other team members. Be sensitive and response to individual strengths and needs. Maintain and encourage frequent communications among team members. Clearly delineate weekly / monthly objectives and monitor progress on each of these activities. Celebrate successes (e.g., data collected, highlighting findings, conference proposals accepted / presented, manuscripts submitted / accepted, defenses, orals passed). Start small and build from a strong foundation. Ultimately you are responsible for the well-being of every team member, therefore, do not expect that more team members will necessarily be better. Add undergraduate research assistants who are highly motivated, skilled, and can be responsive to supervision from the graduate students (and transition team members who are not contributing to the team dynamic and productivity). Develop a series of questions that you will ask of any undergraduate students who are interested in applying to work with your research team. If you teach an undergraduate course, you can highlight the opportunities for students to apply to become a team member. Including questions about their future education / career aspirations is very important, as those students seeking to attend graduate school and careers related to the research are often the most highly motivated and highly engaged in all team activities.

FM: I think that research labs are really critical in socializing students to the research production process. That is, they provide a “behind the scenes” look at just how difficult it can be to conduct high-quality original research. To me, that modeling of best practices, instilling of passion for conducting research, normalization of challenges and difficulties, and work-shopping of ideas is time very well-spent. For me personally, as a first-generation college graduate, I realized how important it is to demystify the process and make conducting rigorous research approachable to everyone, regardless of prior opportunities that students may or may not have had access to.

  1. Do you have any other advice about making the most of student research teams that may benefit early career faculty?

BD: Mentorship is not easy, but it’s incredibly rewarding.  Please know that it is worth the effort to scaffold meaningful research experiences that meet each student where he/she is. Always remember that as a mentor, you are given the opportunity to shape your future colleague, your future coauthor, or your future ambassador in the field.

BH: It is crucial to provide student research teams with adequate support to be successful. For undergraduate RAs, one of the most common strategies I use is to review behavioral expectations early and frequently. Even when I am initially interviewing undergraduate RA candidates, I review the basic behaviors that I expect of my team members should they be selected for the position. I then explicitly teach those behavioral expectations to all RAs who newly join the team, and I ask them to sign a behavioral contract agreeing to those expectations. With both my undergraduate and graduate team members, I find that simply providing pre-corrections is a small but powerful tool to prompt successful completion of the research tasks.

SJ: Be the change and lead by example. Providing a positive experience is important to further engage and motivate research team members. Through your collaborative activities and leadership, aim to prepare team members to be the best possible faculty colleagues and graduate students that you can imagine.  The team’s success is dependent upon your leadership. Embrace the skills, competencies, and knowledge of each team members, and aim to maximize the participation and contributions of each. Be prepared to take care of any and all tasks that any research assistant is not fulfilling. In some instances, still requiring the team member to complete the task and providing scaffolding, but, getting things completed so that all moves forward. Be an inspiration to team members, highlighting the contributions that emerge from the research to help benefit children, families, schools and expressing gratitude for individual and collective efforts.

FM: The time and effort spent in setting up your lab up front is well worth it! Take the time at the beginning of each year to map out a general plan for the year, keeping in mind that it will be a bit of a moving target as the year progresses. By having several projects going and at different stages of development, adjustments can be made to prioritize tasks as needed and keep the work moving forward.

My thanks to the contributors of this post. I’ll conclude with a few comments. In a 2013 Gallup report on workplace productivity, the main message was to build structure that can stretch, and to remember four “needs” as a leader. That is, individuals need (a) to know what’s expected, (b) the right materials and tools, (c) the skills to achieve, and (d) recognition for accomplishments. Build on successes and, as Dr. Dever advised, play the long game!

To make the most of your research team, take advantage of other resources the ECF has made available, including blog posts such as a 2014 entry titled, “Developing a Research Agenda” as well as conference materials, such as handouts from a NASP 2019 presentation titled, “Hitting the Ground Running: Maximizing Your Early Years in Academia”.

Have you had experience leading or participating in a research team? If so, what facilitated or hindered the success of that team?


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