Strategies for Successful Student Collaborations

 In for grad students, for postdocs, PhD/Postdoc Blog

Last month, I examined the important characteristics of a healthy mentor/mentee relationships. Today I would like to focus on another relationship we often find ourselves in during our graduate or postdoc career: collaborations! Similar to mentor/mentee relationships, collaborations can provide a great opportunity for growth when done correctly. Whether you are working with a student in your group or a researcher at another university, there are multiple strategies you can use to build a fulfilling collaboration. This past year I had the chance to cooperate with another 3rd year graduate student in my group; as peers, we used the following strategies to successfully finish and publish our work together.


1. Starting a Collaboration

Who? What? When? Where? Why? Although many collaborations are set-up by principal investigators (PIs), you should always be on the lookout for talented scientists with whom you would like to work. Focus on what this specific collaborator can add to the project in mind, how long and where the project is expected to take place, and most importantly, why do you want to create this team? My path to collaboration began with a simple conversation about an interesting result observed by another student in my group. After proposing the possibility of working together with both the other student and my PI, a partnership was quickly born! Though forming external collaborations can be more complicated, due to funding and other considerations, try discussing with your PI what you can do to make your hopes come to fruition.

There are plenty more fish in the sea. While it is usually beneficial to keep an open mind when it comes to starting a new collaboration, it is also important to know when to say ‘no.’ Although this notion of declining assigned tasks can often make graduate students and postdocs uneasy, saying ‘no’ at the right time may be your best option, as discussed by fellow BEST blogger, Sarah, in her recent post. However, if ‘no’ is not an option, you can use the following strategies as a guide to help you through the task at hand.


2. Division of Labor

The earlier; the better. From the first day of your collaboration, all parties involved should be clear on what their role in the project is going to be. For some collaborations, there will be a clear division of labor (the biology group does “X,” and the chemistry group does “Y”), but for others, it can be less clear cut (as was my experience). Broad proposals can lead to future misunderstandings, so it is important to define concrete assignments. While we all know projects do not always go to plan, an initial and detailed outline of responsibilities will prove to be beneficial even when failures or surprising results emerge. Also, to avoid a possible conflict, be certain to converse with your collaborators about new ideas that arise as the project progresses before embarking on any alternative plans.

Be honest. Think about what skills you have, versus the skills your collaborator possesses. Many collaborations have an equal distribution of labor, but sometimes this is not possible due to the project or experience level of the students you are working with. However, acknowledgment of the difference in effort is more important. This will be especially crucial when deciding authorship, which can sometimes cause issues if students cannot honestly assess their work or that of others. Basically, give credit where credit is due!


3. Communication

Together Everyone Accomplishes More (TEAM). All collaborations rely on the trust between both parties. Without trust, the collaboration will be stunted or even fail completely. Open and consistent communication lines should be set-up early in the partnership. Nonetheless, it is vital to provide enough space to show belief in your co-worker, but at the same time feel comfortable to ask for updates and consultations on issues. From my own experience, face-to-face communication is always the easiest and leads to the fewest number of misunderstanding, yet this is sometimes not possible. If this is the case for your team, I would suggest mainly using video (like Skype or Facetime) or phone calls, and rely on emails for minor data exchanges or comments. More specifically, I like to use Slack as a day-to-day communication platform (you can easily stay organized by creating different channels) and Google Drive or Box for sharing data (I suggest making specific folders and never deleting old data/drafts). Additionally, always try to cheer on each other when one of you gets a good result, and show empathy for the other when an important experiment fails. A collaboration cannot succeed if only one person is the cheerleader, so it is important to support one another.

Assume positive intent. Avoid toxic thoughts, such as “my collaborator is not working hard enough.” Instead, try believing that they are doing their best and perhaps there is some information you are missing. If after a few weeks you are still feeling uncertain about the situation, have a conversation, either one-on-one or with a third-party mediator (your PI can be a good option) depending on your comfort level, but be ready to listen and not attack. And while conflicts are almost impossible to avoid, how you deal with these conflicts can result in very different outcomes. Being able to spin problems into a positive will open up many more opportunities than feeding into the negativity ever could. Be ready to compromise; because sometimes, no matter how polite or clear spoken you are, the other person simply will not see your point of view.

Finally, if you are looking for more advise on forming positive working relationships, please check out Adriana’s recent blog about “Be human first, scientist second.”


Until next month,

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