One of the most crucial factors that may determine your success as a PI will be your success in recruiting and establishing your team members. 

In this section you will: 

  • Hear experience and advice from Imperial colleagues on recruiting your first team members 
  • Find resources to help you to plan and manage recruitment of staff and PhD students 
  • Understand the considerations and practices involved in recruiting inclusively  
  • Consider what to include in an induction for your new team members 
“Your greatest asset isn’t people. Your greatest asset is the RIGHT people. Regardless of endeavour, the key to success is having the right people on the bus.”
- Jim Collins in ‘Good to Great’

Advice on recruiting your first students and research staff

In interviews with established PIs and heads of department they identified recruitment of team members to be both a key priority and something that commonly causes setbacks and anxiety when you are a new PI. Learn from their experience, warnings and advice:


Professor Neil Alford

“Very new lecturers are desperate to build a research group and may take PhDs and postdocs that really aren’t appropriate. You can get lucky, but you really don’t want to trust this to luck.  One of the things that my mentee did successfully was to get me to help interview and look at paperwork for every student and postdoc they recruited.  That is a sensible thing to do.  Just take a step back and know that we expect this process will take you 2-3 years.” 
- Professor Neil Alford, Associate Provost (Academic Planning) 

“Recruiting to start your own team is exciting and daunting at the same time. Here are a few thoughts that have helped me: (i) the temptation to recruit someone that thinks/works like you can be high, yet keep an open mind, diversity of approaches and ideas are key to innovation; (ii) don’t hesitate to recruit people who are more expert than you are in a domain so you learn from them and they learn from you; (iii) skills are important but potential, attitude and shared values drive the work on the long run; (iv) your network is real resource, so don’t hesitate to reach out to colleagues around the world and let them know that you are looking for people to join your team.”
Professor Camille Petit, Professor of Materials Engineering

Professor Peter Haynes

“Do not be hasty. I’ve seen too many early career academics stumble because their first PhD student struggled. They were just desperate to get someone in. Weak students need lots of support and this is hard work: it will take you twice as long to supervise these students so you could have done the project yourself.  If someone got to the end of probation without recruiting successfully, I would say, “Please don't worry, I would really rather you actually appoint somebody good and, to be honest, we'll help you find a good PhD student.” If you need help, be sure to raise it before that stage.”  
- Professor Peter Haynes, former Head of Department, Materials, now Vice-Provost (Education and Student Experience)

Quotations 2

“Fifty percent of the problems research leaders have is because they make a bad first appointment. The most important thing that you’ll ever do in that first year is appoint your first PhD student or postdoc and it's very hard if you don't get a strong shortlist. If you've got a small team and then you get somebody who's not good, you’re effectively walking around with a ball and chain around you. At the end probation review, I wouldn't be critical at all if you said to me, “I haven’t recruited yet. I'm using a new strategy to try and recruit as I wasn't happy with the first set of applicants. I didn't want to rush into this because I'd get the wrong person. I think that would show maturity and a strategy. I think it would be quite appropriate, actually.” 
- Prof. Edwin Chilvers, former Head of Department, National Heart & Lung Institute 

Professor Edwin Chilvers

“Involve others in your recruitment: Some people, now they're branching out on their own, are too keen to show that they're independent. They feel they have to make their own decisions; they know their own mind and they don't want to ask for help because they want to be in charge. They don't want to be told who to appoint or what to do. But, when you are recruiting, these are such important appointments. You must get as many voices in the room as possible, and with as much experience as possible. It’s still your decision, it’s you leading the recruitment process.  But I think some people do silo themselves away trying just to prove their independence.” 
- Prof. Edwin Chilvers, former Head of Department, National Heart & Lung Institute 

“When you first start as a new PI you feel like to have to prove yourself quickly.  Don’t feel the pressure to recruit immediately, even though you know it means you won’t get things started in the lab.   Discuss this with your head of department and just don’t recruit someone if you don’t feel they are good enough.  Spend time and have clarity on your strategy so you know what you want to do.  Don’t have too many people to start with: take time to recruit people who are a good fit with you and your strategy.  Recruitment is about making sure you get someone that you think works well with you and that they bring a skill set you don’t already have in your research group.” 
- Dr Florian Bouville, Senior Lecturer, Department of Materials 

Recruiting your first team

It is likely that you will be recruiting contracted research staff, technical staff and/or research students. As you would expect, there are different processes, requirements and expectations when recruiting staff and students. The College provides you with detailed guidance and support on recruitment and we have listed some key sources here, alongside external references that you may find useful:

Recruiting staff

Recruiting staff:

  • Advice, templates and policies - All you will need to know is on the College’s recruitment webpages.  It includes templates for job adverts, research staff job descriptions, shortlisting and interview assessments as well as help sheets e.g. on interview tips.  It also specifically provides a guide to recruiting professional, teaching and research staff.  This is a very thorough resource that includes topics such as determining the need to recruit, advertising, making interview arrangements, making offers and pre-employment checks.   
  • Training - People and Organisational Development also provide general training on recruitment and selection (see A-Z of management and leadership
  • Advice and support  - you can ask questions on any aspect of the HR recruitment guidance or specific recruitment issues by emailing 

Recruiting doctoral students:


Make sure you have talked to your academic advisor and head of department to find out about: 

  • Any departmental or faculty processes or requirements for recruitment 
  • Processes for getting PhD students via Centres for Doctoral Training 

Are you planning on writing staff into a research grant?

Make sure you have spoken to your faculty research service colleagues to ensure your proposal includes appropriate recruitment timelines and costings.

Recruiting inclusively

“Get advice on recruiting diversely and thinking about how that diversity will bring creativity to your group.”
- Dr Mary Matthews, Lecturer, Department of Physics

Diversity in your research group will encourage innovation, productivity, and creativity. Ensure that every aspect of your recruitment and selection plans and processed will enable and welcome a diverse range of applicants and be free from bias. To ensure that you are recruiting in an inclusive manner, here are a few pointers:

Diverse recruitment accordion

Recruiting diversely

Read the HR team's guide to inclusive recruitment to help you to recruit in a way that is inclusive to all and does not disproportionately affect historically under-represented groups such as minority ethnic, female, LGBTQ+, or disabled applicants.

Be aware of unconscious bias

Make sure you fully understand what unconscious bias is, how it can affect your recruitment decisions and how to manage and avoid it.  Here are some resources that will help you: 

  • Information on Unconscious Bias from the Imperial College London EDI team that explains what it is and what you can do about it, as well as links to further resources. 

A study of science faculties in higher education institutions (Moss-Racusin et al. 2012) asked staff to review a number of applications. The applications reviewed were identical, apart from the gender of the name of the applicant. Science faculties were more likely to:

  • rate male candidates as better qualified than female candidates
  • want to hire the male candidates rather than the female candidates
  • give the male candidate a higher starting salary than the female candidate
  • be willing to invest more in the development of the male candidate than the female candidate 

- from AdvanceHE 


Support your new research staff and students to hit the ground running.  Make sure that you are aware of the range of resource that are provided here.  Then you can signpost your team to them effectively, as well as being able to fulfil some of the expectations set out in them.  Remember that new staff and students are likely to feel overwhelmed with information in the first few days and weeks, so put a reminder in the diary to revisit these resources after the first few weeks to make sure nothing has gone unnoticed.   

Induction accordion

Before arrival

New staff:  

New PhD students:

All new starters:  

  • Check with your departmental or faculty administrators to see whether there are local guides or expectations for induction of new staff of students.  
  • Arrange a diary of meetings between your new starter and key members of your team, department, and relevant collaborators to get to know one another and start to have conversations about their plans, how they might help one another and any expectations they may have of one another. 
  • Check with them whether they have received dates of any College or Faculty welcome or induction events for new staff, which they should receive automatically. 

Within the first 1-2 weeks

New PhD students:  

  • Use ‘Things to tell new PhD students’ (pdf) in your first meeting.  It’s a very useful settling-in checklist to download from Hugh Kearns’s ithinkwell website.   
  • Use the main stages of a research degree webpage (from the College’s Success guide for doctoral students) to initiate a discussion with your student about the big picture and the milestones along the way.  Then you can support them to plan the first few months of their PhD.  
  • Share and discuss Cornerstone’s curated list of training and support for doctoral students available across College. This will help you to signpost your students to the resources that best suit their individual needs. 

New research staff:  

All new starters:  

Within the first 1-2 months

All new starters:  


Internal resources and guidance

Relevant training provided by People and Organisational Development includes: 

External resources and guidance

Previous and next

Go back to the previous section: Leading your research group overview

Go to the next section: Building and developing a team