Pride in the Field

Running Inclusive Projects: Insights from a Principal Investigator

By Rosaleen Duffy, University of Sheffield

This post is part of our Pride in the Field Series, organised in collaboration with the Pride in the Field project at the University of Leeds. More information and further reading about that project can be found here.

As Principal Investigators, what can we do to create diverse and inclusive teams? I felt I should have a snappy answer for this, after all I have been part of research teams since I was a brand new post doc in (gulp) 1997. These days I feel very fortunate to have experience of running several large grants with big teams. But I still found the question really challenging.  I racked my brains. The truth is I am not sure I know the answer. Eventually it dawned on me that looking for ‘the answer’ was precisely what made this so difficult:  I don’t know the answer, and that’s ok. So instead here I reflect on my experiences and hope that these suggestions open a space for further reflection, questioning and discussion.

Recognise your own privilege first

It is important to recognise your own privilege and how that shapes the project.  As a cis, white, able, heterosexual woman professor, I am in a very privileged position, which is not erased by my minority heritage, class background or gender. Recognising how our own identities can shape teams is essential – and we should not expect or ask LGBTQ+, or other minoritised colleagues, to act as our tutors. I have not personally experienced racism, homophobia or transphobia, and so my understanding is obviously limited.  I try to educate myself first, and I am upfront that I might not always get things right.  I very much appreciate the chance to learn, especially from my mistakes, so I don’t repeat them.

Set the tone

As a PI, lead investigator, senior colleague (whatever you want to call it, but I always ban the word ‘boss’), we set the tone for research projects. For me, I think PIs set the tone before the project even begins, and if anything it starts at the design stage of the project. Research cultures can themselves be exclusionary, which result in an on-going lack of diversity in academia.  For example, tacit knowledge such as the ‘everybody knows’ approach, and unspoken codes and conventions around academic networking, creates barriers for some, while simultaneously privileging access for others. It’s worth thinking these through as you begin to design a project.  Where will the team be working? Who will we be working with? Are there additional risks for some researchers, and if so, how will those risks be minimised and managed? If I need to recruit researchers, have I thought carefully enough about how the research design itself may, or may not, attract particular kinds of applicants? The recruitment process is key: the wording of the advert is critical to ensuring a diverse and inclusive set of candidates feel able to apply.  It is really important to be open and supportive in the interview as well, so that candidates can show what they are capable of – too often I hear stories about oppositional interviewing techniques that operate to catch the interviewee out. What’s the point of that? Has it allowed you to get a full sense of what this person can bring to the whole project? My guess is no.

Create a Collaborative Atmosphere

The team atmosphere is crucial. This is not at all easy to articulate, but trust and mutual respect are critical. I try to make sure all team members feel listened to and understood in meetings, and in wider conversations. I encourage everyone to be involved in decision making about the project – this can be challenging for some colleagues, especially if their previous experience is of being excluded from these kinds of discussions. I encourage team members to lead on particular aspects of the project, to build their confidence and develop skills.  A team spirit of collaboration rather than competition in large projects is crucial. Competition wastes energy and prevents the development of new ideas and collaborations. I have been very proud, and touched, to see how different team members have developed collaborative research relationships, but have also supported each other through challenges. For me the greatest success of a project is that it forms durable connections and friendships. I would feel I had failed as a PI if even one person left the project with a huge sigh of relief and a sense of  ‘thank goodness that’s finally over’.

Learn from colleagues

I have gained so much knowledge from all the people I have worked with, and I am keen to keep learning. As I started the BIOSEC Project, I was anxious to learn more about how to develop a positive, supportive and collaborative atmosphere. I have talked with several other PIs of large projects, eager to glean hints and tips about how to create a cohesive and successful team. I have listened intently and got some great advice, but the reality is I have learned as the different projects developed. 

Tailored Support

One of the first conversations I have with early career researchers is about thinking through how a temporary post doc position can be used to develop their skills and profile, so that they are in the strongest position to move to a permanent/tenure track position. I am aware this is sometimes a very daunting topic for a first conversation. However, I have always regarded my role as providing advice and support for colleagues to develop their own pathways. So we work out a carefully tailored plan together.  Too often I hear PIs use the phrase ‘my post docs’ and it always makes me wince. I never think post docs are ‘mine’ – early career researchers are colleagues, they are people I work with, they do not ‘work for’ me. Sadly some PIs set out to work in a very hierarchical way, treating colleagues as functionaries to do their bidding, thereby stifling creativity and collaboration. This models really problematic behaviour for the next generation of senior academics, and it is a cycle that must be broken.

Inclusive Social Life

I was once asked, ‘What do you do for fun on your project?’ That was a question I had not expected as a PI, but it is really important. If the social life of a project primarily revolves around lots of drinking in pubs or staff-student football, then you have a problem. It is likely that you have developed a team that lacks diversity and/or that some team members feel excluded, while others are joining under sufferance. The ways that projects socialise can tell you a lot about the ethos of the team. It is really important to think carefully and create opportunities to socialise in a variety of ways. Ask the team what they would like to do –we have tried playing conkers, food sharing and walking meetings. The  PI should be sensitive to the fact that  team members may not want to socialise outside core working hours, especially if they have caring responsibilities  – and to make sure other team members understand and support this too.

Life outside the project

Work-life balance is an overused phrase – often trotted out with an exhortation for individuals to make sure they have that balance, but without really offering concrete support to do that. As a PI it is important to be mindful and sensitive to how team members might need different kinds of support at different points in the project – to make time and space to talk when needed. Many projects last several years and involve large teams of people. A lot can happen in people’s lives during this time – including major life events, both happy and sad. It is tempting to think of the implications for the project first and foremost, but this is a mistake. Instead, it is useful to talk through what each person needs in the short and longer term – as PI you don’t have all the answers, so working collaboratively with colleagues to come up with support, solutions and revised plans works really well. There have been times I have needed support and have been really heartened by how colleagues have helped me through bereavements and extended periods of pandemic-related homeschooling.

As I said in the beginning, I don’t have the answer for creating diverse and inclusive teams, but working together in a spirit of collaboration, mutual trust and respect are vital. As PIs we can and must do better to make sure everyone feels that they belong in a project.

About the author: Rosaleen Duffy is Professor of International Politics, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Sheffield. She is a political ecologist whose research centres on the international politics of conservation. She held an ERC Advanced Investigator Award  (2016-2020) for the BIOSEC Project, and is currently Principal Investigator on the ESRC funded Beastly Business Project (2021-2023) on political ecologies of green collar crime, examining the illegal trade in European wildlife. She is author of a forthcoming book on Security and Biodiversity (Yale University Press 2022).

The work discussed in this blog is supported by a European Research Council grant for the BIOSEC Project, number 694995 and an ESRC grant for Beastly Business, number  ES/V00929X/1


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