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Academic Coaching & Writing

III. Selecting the Right Collaborator

Aug 24, 2018 by Claire Renaud

If you have decided to pursue a collaboration, there are a few steps to take prior to initiating the collaboration:

  • Clarify the idea for the project
  • Identify a potential collaborator
  • Decide how to approach your potential collaborator
  • Strategize how to present your proposal to your potential collaborator

This blog will address the first two steps.

Clarify the Idea for the Project

First of all, you will probably want to approach a collaborator with more than just a desire to work on a project together. You need to define the idea for your project, including not only the main topic of interest, but more specifically what you see yourself and your collaborator doing with that topic. Do you want to design an experiment and present it at a conference? Do you want to prepare a grant application for a new research project in an area of shared interest? Do you want to prepare a manuscript on a specific topic you each have expertise on? At this stage, you do not have to have every detail planned out, since part of collaborating will be refining the idea and creating a plan that works for both of you, including rules, expectations, and availability. However, you do need a general idea for a collaborative project.

Identify a Potential Collaborator

Once you have an idea for a collaborative project, the next step is to identify a potential collaborator and recognize how different types of collaborators may impact the nature of the collaboration. Your options for a collaborator include both colleagues and students, and your decision about who to collaborate with may be guided by what each type of collaborator may say about you as a scholar during the tenure and/or promotion review process.

As you think about collaborating with colleagues, you might consider working with a senior colleague, a peer who is at your level, or a junior colleague. What does each type of collaboration say about you?

Senior colleagues. Working with a senior colleague may label you as being someone who cannot work independently. In other words, you may continue to be seen as more of a student rather than an independent scholar. Of course, if that senior colleague is the best and most well-versed person on the topic, the benefits outweigh the risks. You should certainly consider collaborating. The trick will be to assume leadership of the collaboration and find ways to showcase your strengths independently from what your senior colleague contributes (which may be easy if a senior scholar cannot commit as much time and effort as you).

Peers. The second scenario involves working with someone who is at the same stage in the tenure and/or promotion process as you. In this case, you would likely be seen as equals when you go up for tenure and/or promotion. Once again you will need to assert your role as the driver of the project so that you can receive full credit for your hard work in making the collaboration happen.

Junior colleagues. Working with a junior colleague could be beneficial if you don’t have many opportunities to mentor students and need to showcase your ability to mentor others in your field. Again, when you go up for tenure and/or promotion, assert yourself as the leader of the project.

As you think about potential student collaborators, you may consider working with postdoctoral researchers, with graduate students, or with undergraduate students. In all cases, you will be seen as a mentor, which will most certainly be beneficial as you go up for tenure and/or promotion. For each type of collaborator, you can expect your level of involvement and guidance to increase, with the postdocs being the most independent and the undergraduate students requiring the most hands-on approach.

Postdoctoral researchers. When working with a postdoc, you should expect a relationship much like a junior colleague in that a postdoc should already possess the tools necessary to complete the project, but may still require some guidance along the way. And as the more advanced member of the team, you will assume the role of a leader and mentor in the collaboration.

Graduate students. A collaboration with a graduate student may involve either a Master’s student or a PhD student. Both are in a graduate program of studies to learn and likely will be eager to work on your project and to learn from you. Of course, for a student collaborator, graduate requirements are more important than your research project so you will need to ensure that you keep the project on track and provide opportunities for your student collaborator to grow as a scholar. The more advanced a student is in a graduate career, the more independence you can expect. However, if this is a student’s first introduction to a research collaboration, you will need to provide more guidance throughout all stages of the project.

Undergraduate students. Finally, selecting to work with an undergraduate can be just as rewarding as working with a more advanced student. You will most certainly need to supervise and guide them along the various steps of the process, since the undergraduate will in all likelihood know little about the field or even about how to conduct research. However, the student may be highly motivated by the opportunity to work with you, and you may find it incredibly gratifying to initiate an undergraduate to the world of research, potentially influencing future career choices.

One way to provide graduate and undergraduate students with more than just a line on their CV is to offer an independent study so that the student can claim school credits for work on the project. Offering this incentive is likely to increase a student’s motivation to participate and to prioritize the project.

In short, your selection of a collaborator should not be limited to someone’s interest in the research topic. The decision should be strategic so that it helps you bolster your profile, especially if you are going up for tenure and/or promotion. The next blog will discuss your next steps—deciding how to approach a potential collaborator and strategizing how to present your proposal.

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