Are you in a team?

Not all groups of people working together are teams. And when your supervisor is not on your team, then you are definitely going to have a significant problem and you’ll need to think about how to tackle that.

But what do we mean by a team?

A team is not just a group of people who happen to work or research together. A team is an intentional group of people, who are purposefully recruited for their various complementary skills and attributes, and who are given defined and mutually supportive roles. A team will always have a leader or organiser, though that may be co-captains, a coach, a manager or an instigator.

A team will always have a purpose. They come together to win a game, or reach a goal, or achieve a task. When the task is complete, the team will chose whether to disband, or pursue a new task.

A team will always have rules, or norms, or guidelines on how they interact. These may be explicit or implicit, but they will exist. These rules will clarify who is responsible for certain aspects of the teamwork, and which aspects they don’t have to worry about or areas they are excluded from.

What team-like groups are not necessarily teams?

Organisational units in big institutions like universities might be formed into teams with great management… but they might be just a group of people whose position descriptions looked similar enough to put them together in an open plan office and give them the same reporting lines. Similarly, a research group may work together as a team, all focussed on specific aspects of one bigger project… or it might be a group of people whose research interests looked similar enough on paper that someone could justify a grant.

A Faculty is frequently not really a team. Academics are hired to cover all the different specialities that are taught in a survey degree, and so you could easily be the only expert in your area. You may not even really understand each other’s research or teaching specialisms. You kind of work together to deliver the curriculum, but you probably only become a ‘team’ when you work on service projects together…or maybe you are just a member of a service committee (which isn’t always a team either!).

Students in a class are not teams either. They are not selected to join the class for their distinct and complementary skills, they are all taking the class for similar reasons and at a similar stage of their learning journey. What’s more, they are put into competition with each other for grades, and are therefore not united towards a common goal. This is one reason why group assessments are often challenging–suddenly a group needs to become a team and it may or may not succeed!

In all of these situations, you might never actually need to work together towards a joint goal. You might all share a culture though. You might mostly ignore each other; you might be polite or socially friendly; you might even be vicious competitors.

The most blurry of these groups, however, is the group of people who think they are working towards a shared goal… but they lack all the aspects of a proper team, so their work ends up being ineffective, unorganised and perhaps even counter-productive. A group where everything is everyone’s responsibility is not usually a very efficient team. They may have a manager, but not necessarily a leader. They may have nebulous values in common, but not agree on the actual specific purpose of working together. They may all be too similar, so there is not a spread of skills and tasks being done to reach the goal.

When you are in a group that isn’t a team, it can be tempting to work harder rather than smarter. Every day, you see that your group isn’t getting closer to delivering in line with your values. You all believe in your work, so you are motivated to do more of it. And to feel ever more despondent when it doesn’t seem to be making a positive difference. After a while, you realise you are trapped in this cycle of overwork and disappointment. You are not in a team, you are 15 martyrs in an organisational unit.

Rather than continuing to pour energy and time into the morass of labour, you should step back (hopefully as a group, but maybe just you) and clearly define:

  • what is the specific goal or task we are trying to achieve here?
  • what is my role in making this happen? What is NOT my role?
  • who is leading this thing? is it the official senior person? do I need to start leading?
  • what skills or attributes are we missing here? how can we get it? do I need to learn it or can we borrow it?
  • who in the group can become part of a team, and who is just a member of our group?
  • would an outside intervention help here? who would we ask and what would we ask for?

This is particularly important if the ineffective group is… your supervision team.

If you and your doctoral supervisor don’t agree on the goal, roles and strategy for your PhD, then you will face a lot of challenges. Most people these days have more than one supervisor, and many people are part of larger research teams, so the team challenges might be with one person or with a much larger group.

You may need to have difficult conversations, negotiate roles, or manage disagreements. Some supervisors think you should be the leader, and other supervisors think they should take the lead. Supervisors may think that their specific input is about funding, or time management, or writing style, or subject expertise… and you may have similar expectations or not. What’s more, the contributions and leadership might need to change across your degree.

If you are not a team, you might need an intervention, to request some team-building work, or to take on the leadership yourself. The supervisory relationship is so integral in your success as a developing researcher, that it’s worth spending the time and energy to get it right. Many universities have formal workshops; your graduate degree administration team will also often have advisors who can help; and there is plenty of advice out there, like this whole section of the Thesis Whisperer blog, or in Chapter 8 of my book Your PhD Survival Guide.

If you need interventions, these can be low-key and informal (like getting a mentor to have an off-hand chat to your supervisor); they can be structural (like getting another supervisor added to the team); or you can bring in external tools (like this Supervisor-Student Role Perception Scale.) There are lots of avenues to explore before you need to take nuclear options (like removing a supervisor from your team or moving universities). You want to be sure that you will not have the same issues again after all that disruption.

That said, if you realise you aren’t on a team because you are being bullied or harassed by your supervisor (or any other kind of misconduct) then you should explore all the options to change the membership of your team. You can’t build a team with people you can’t trust. Someone whose goal is to belittle you (or sleep with you) isn’t sharing your goal of succeeding in your research. Talk to your mentor, administration team, or your university’s counselling service, student union, campus safety team about your options.


Working together on an academic project with a great team is one of the best experiences you can have. If you aren’t currently having that experience, there are things you can do to improve it, even as the person with less formal power.

Understanding what you need to make a group into a team can help you identify what is going great, and where things need to be improved. And it can help you make decisions in advance about what teams you want to join, or when it’s the right time to leave.

Photo by Nick Abrams on Unsplash


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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