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I. Collaborating With Others or Not?

Aug 10, 2018 by Claire Renaud

This ACW blog series will explore what it means to collaborate with others to accomplish your academic goals, how your research can benefit from working with collaborators, how to determine whether collaboration is right for you, how to get started, and how to manage collaborations successfully.

In this blog series, you will learn about the following topics:

  • Deciding whether to collaborate
  • Selecting the right collaborator
  • Connecting with a potential collaborator
  • Negotiating the terms of the collaboration
  • Managing your collaboration
  • Putting your collaboration into perspective

Note that in this entire blog series, for simplicity of exposition, two key decisions were made. First, collaboration is limited to projects with one other person. However, you can, of course, decide to collaborate with more than one person on a project. Many of the comments that apply to collaborating with one person also apply to groups of collaborators. Second, collaboration is considered from the perspective of the initiator of a collaboration, and it is assumed that you, as the initiator of the collaboration, are the leader of the project. However, once again, many of the points raised here also apply if you are being asked to be a collaborator on a project.

What Does it Mean to Collaborate?

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, to collaborate means “to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor.”

For academics, a collaboration occurs when two or more people work together on a project.

Collaborations usually result in an outcome, which, for academics, can take various forms (such as a research presentation, a grant application, a publication, or perhaps a community outreach project). These outcomes contribute to a faculty’s research program and efforts for achieving tenure and/or promotion.

What are the Benefits of Collaboration?

There are many benefits to collaborating with someone. Another pair of eyes is certainly beneficial. However, you’re also getting another brain to work on the project. A collaborator is someone with whom to discuss the project throughout the entire process, another person invested in the project (which means that you won’t have to do it all!), another researcher with a different perspective and a different set of skills and expertise. With a collaborator, not only do you have someone with whom to exchange ideas but also you have someone with whom to commiserate when things are not working out the way you intended. And this sharing of the burden can be motivating, even exhilarating at times. It can also alleviate some of the stress since you won’t have to worry about everything by yourself.

Different Perspectives. In many cases, collaborations will allow you to produce a stronger product since more than one person will tackle the project, thus providing additional expertise. Indeed, having a collaborator who has different skills, experiences, and interests will ensure that you sharpen your arguments, clarify what you are trying to say, and take more things into consideration, from the design of the project to its dissemination in presentations and publications. Collaborations provide opportunities to expand your research agenda to other areas that may be new to you since a collaborator by definition is someone else who will have slightly different research interests than you do and will thus push you to think about the project in ways that you might not think of on your own.

Accountability Partners. Another benefit to collaboration is that you have someone else who can help you move forward and keep you accountable. How many times when you work on your own project do you decide to do the dishes or to surf on the web or find some other way to procrastinate? With collaborations, this happens as well. However, because someone else is working with you, you may be more likely to prioritize this project and to meet the project deadlines. You probably won’t want to disappoint the other person involved and will be more likely to keep the project moving.

Sharing of Tasks. In a collaboration you are not the only one working on the project. So, the success of the project doesn’t depend only on you. Even if you don’t have as much time as you would like to spend on the project, someone else will help move the project forward. You can choose to work on all aspects of the project together with your collaborator. However, another option would be for you to rely on the strengths of your collaborator and delegate some parts of the project. For example, if your collaborator is strong in statistics and you are not, you could ask your collaborator to lead the data analysis and produce the first draft of those sections of the article. And even if these are also not your collaborator’s strength, at least there will be two of you to work on those more challenging sections. In short, you’re getting help on the project.

Each collaboration will be as unique as its collaborators. However, a common thread in all collaborations is that there will be many regular intellectual conversations on a topic that interests you and that you will have an opportunity to learn from your collaborator. Indeed, your collaborator will undoubtedly have many suggestions for you along the way as well as knowledge that will prove extremely useful to you in your career. And while there are a number of benefits to collaborating, there are also some challenges you should consider before jumping into a collaboration. The next blog will discuss some of these challenges.

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