I wanna be leader

Lincoln, carved in state at the Lincoln Memorial
Lincoln, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Sometimes, different people write to me with similar questions.

I always like it when this happens, as I only have to write one e-mail in reply. It saves a bit of time.

Here are two complementary queries I’ve received:

Just a quick question about the makeup of the team. I am hoping to put in a grant where I am project leader but I’ll be the only person from our university. The team members are in other unis in Australia and south-east Asia. They are all Associate Profs and higher. Does this pose a complication with me being the most junior and my university being the administering organisation?

At this stage I really do need some more information about how cross-institutional collaborations work. Given that there are 6 academics on this team, it is important for me to ensure that our university is clearly recognised as a partner. Any guidance you can offer would be greatly appreciated, as I’ll need to start negotiating all of this with the research team.

Both the requests are seeking information about how to structure their team. This mostly revolves around who will be the project leader.

Occasionally, I come across a group that is having difficulty deciding who should be listed as the project leader. Some teams think that the most senior person should be listed first. Others want to follow the same conventions that they use when they write a journal article.

I do come across truly collaborative teams, which don’t care who goes first. I’ve even heard of institutional politics getting in the way, with one university insisting that their researcher must be listed first.

The project leader (the first person listed on the front page of the application, in most cases) has a very special role in the application.

In the standard narrative, the project leader is the person who is at the core of the project. Intellectually, they should be the person who will drive the project forward.

The easiest way for you to demonstrate this is to point to a project that you’ve already bought to a successful conclusion. Ideally, it should be a project of the same scale, or bigger, than the current one. If you’ve done it before, readers will be confident that you can do it again.

That is one of the reasons that senior people find it easy to get their names on grant applications. It is a way to signal that the project is in good hands.

Having said this, it doesn’t mean that every application needs to be led by a senior researcher. If the application is based on your idea and work, then I believe you should be the project leader.

To ensure that you make your argument as strong as possible you need to understand all the things that readers are looking for in a project leader. Then you need to make it clear that you can do all those things.

I’ve listed them here in a sort of chronological order, from the beginning of the application through to the end of the project. You mightn’t write about them in that way, but it’s an easy way to think about them.

Whose project is it?

The project leader often owns the core intellectual property of the project. That is, it’s their idea.

This isn’t always as easy to identify as you might think. Most applications that I work on are multi-disciplinary, to a greater or lesser extent. By definition, that means that ideas are coming from all participants. If that wasn’t the case, why are they on the team? Each of them thinks that the project can’t proceed without their contribution, and they are right. Being a critical part of the team isn’t the same as being the core bedrock of the team, though.

Who did the background work? If there has been a pilot project, who drove that project? These sorts of questions can often tease out who should be project leader. Who pulled the team together? That is often an indicator, too.

The project leader will be responsible for making sure the project stays on track. That is, they have to manage the project. This includes the administrative stuff like making sure that the money stays on track, and that the reports get written on time. The best way to do that is by doing the administration yourself. It isn’t hard.

More importantly, it means having the tie-breaker vote when things need to change / be fixed / get tricky. This is research, so things won’t go according to plan. You need to make sure that people are still engaged / stimulated / doing the work that they are supposed to do / interested in the project.

And, when they aren’t, you need to either get them back in the game, or replace them with someone who will do their bit (or pick up the slack yourself, which I think is pretty common).

As I said earlier, the easiest way to give people confidence that you can do this is by showing that you have done it before. To break this Catch-22 situation, you want to weave two things through the story of your application: development over time and delegation to experts.

Development over time

If you’ve never run a project this big before, show that you have been steadily moving towards it in your previous work. Weave it through the discussion of previous work. Consider this paragraph:

The original work for this project developed from a surprising result in A Related Project (Blogs & Jones, 2013). In 2012, a pilot project (supported by the industry partners with $40,000) successfully tested the core concept (Jones, Blogs & King, forthcoming). This project…

What’s the story here? In 2013, Jones was working on Blog’s project. Since then, she has led her own pilot project, developed the team, and generated publications. She has clearly managed her $40,000 of industry funding quite successfully. That shows development over time.

Often, your previous projects don’t fit neatly into the background of the project. That’s OK. They will appear in your CV and can often be referenced in other sections. For example, internal funding should be included when you describe your research environment.

Be aware that different sorts of funding can indicate different things. While internal funding clearly indicates that your university supports you and believes in you, you need to also show support from outside. That big Fellowship that you won shows that you are competitive, but you won it on your own, so it doesn’t say anything about your ability to manage a team.

Delegation to experts

Not everybody can be expert at everything. Some people are better at managing finances than others. Some people aren’t good at keeping things on track. That’s OK, as long as you know your weaknesses.

One of the reasons that we bring together teams is because the team is usually stronger than the individuals in it. You’ve bought your team together because they have the intellectual skills that you need. But if you are smart, they’ll also be able to supplement the areas where you are weak, where you may not have the experience you need.

This shows most clearly when somebody has been included because they are a specialist in a particular research technique (e.g. “King has special expertise in multivariate statistical analysis, developed over 53 previous projects”).

However, it might also apply to other parts of the project, such as: “King has special expertise in multivariate statistical analysis, developed over 53 previous projects. In addition, she will manage the finances for this project, having previously managed multiple grants worth $500,000 – $750,000 each”.

Many applications specifically ask what each person in the team will do. Even if they don’t ask for it explicitly, I think that you should include these details. It shows that you’ve thought it through, and sat down and worked it out with the other researchers. That is, that you’ve planned the project thoroughly, and that you can manage the team dynamics productively. That’s what a project leader does.


  1. Credibility is key in this as much as any other part of a project. Whether someone can deliver is no just about their skills and experience. It’s also about their relative commitments. Prof Hotshot may have the standing but a reader may justifiably wonder if she’ll be really keeping close enough to know all really is going well given she has 10 other major roles or if she’s just being used as a figurehead.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely true, Miriam.

      I’ve seen assessors express this in their reviews. Usually they say something like “I wonder how much time Hotshot can devote to this project, given her existing commitments.” They never come out and say “Hotshot will never do any work on this project”, but that is what they mean.


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