Surviving and thriving on collaboration.

Juggling all of the things that you’re supposed to do as a University academic can be tricky. The traditional academic is supposed to conduct large amounts of valuable, cited and grant-rewarded research, be an exemplary and inspirational teacher, and also find time to sit on lots of committees, fill out forms and not get in the way, too much, of the central administration process. As a junior academic, you’ll sit on fewer committees but you may, instead, get admin jobs like ‘collecting the software requirements’ or ‘looking after the casual teaching budget’, so there’s always something to do.

The biggest mistake a lot of people make is trying to do it all themselves. Yes, you must be involved with these tasks, you will be responsible for their successful completion, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t consult other people to help, or involve them for collaboration, or bring other people in when the scale of what you’re trying to do might crush you.

The quick summary of this post is that if you get good at collaborating with other people, and you can set up a relationship that is on a roughly equal footing, then everyone benefits. However, you need to work out what each person is bringing and who is the right person to involve.

You can read a lot of self-help books that, effectively, boil down to “making it appear as if there is more than one of you”. When you can set things up so that you put in some vital, required, element, but then the heavy lifting or continued presence is handled elsewhere, then you’ve achieved this because you can then devote yourself elsewhere. Some things require you to be there the whole time: your own wedding, any event where you are supposed to be the speaker (which includes lecturing) and a lot of meetings. Some other things on our long to-do list require us to be involved, but not necessarily to be the sole operator. Let’s start by looking at research.

Research, in terms of finding ideas, pursuing ideas, getting results, writing them up and publishing them, is a time-intensive activity that requires reasonably long stretches of uninterrupted time to get the best results. Unless you have a research-only position, or you’re on sabbatical, that’s very hard to achieve. However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t do it and we don’t necessarily have to sacrifice all of our weekends to do it. (Seriously, though, you’re going to lose some leisure time here and there. Academia is not a 9-5 job.)

One of the big advantages of having research collaborators is that your research and its publication, hence visibility and possible grant success, is always moving forward. These collaborators might be colleagues in a research group, research fellows, post docs, research assistants and PhD students (in later stages) and most of these, especially people who are paid to research, can keep the flow going when you’re tied up having to be in another place.

All these staff sound fine but this assumes that you’ve had the success required to employ all of these people! So how do we start down this track?

The answer is collaboration: finding people who are doing similar things so that you have more than one of you working on research, papers and grant applications. Look around inside your own school, or faculty, and work out if you have something that you’ve done that, combined with someone else’s work or input, can give you both some benefit if you work together. Ideally, the effort expended by each of you is approximately 50-70% of the effort required individually but still achieves the outcome. The more you work together, the more synergy that you’re likely to achieve because you start to have small copies of each other in your heads.

The same is true for learning and teaching based research and development. Can you find someone who also wants to do what you’re doing and can you work together so that you achieve the same result with less individual effort? Can you find someone to bounce those early ideas off to get better ideas forming?

We all know that your students learn more when they’re excited and engaged and discussing things with their peers. Research success can be achieved on the same basis. If your research is rewarding and you have someone to bounce it off, someone who can enthuse you or bring it back on track, you will do more and you will achieve more.

Forming a collaboration should be rewarding and all parties should benefit from it. Some collaborations stop after one effort, because one side or the other feels that they have been exploited. Yes, sometimes this happens, but you’ll quickly work out who you can and can’t work with. Forming successful collaborations early on, before you have the money to employ your own continuity providers, makes your job more manageable and allows you to bring more of yourself to other places, including your home life.

Here’s my (not exhaustive) list of things to think about when setting up a collaboration:

  1. What are you going to do? You should know what the task or project is, including every subtask you can think of, so there are no surprises later on.
  2. Who is involved? Work out who you are working with and have them involved from the start.
  3. What is everyone doing? Who is responsible for what?
  4. How much is everyone bringing to the arrangement? Resources, time, people or goodwill – cards on the table up front to avoid disappointment.
  5. When is everything due? Know your internal and external deadlines.
  6. How often will you meet? Will you be minuting things, e-mailing, using wikis or just having chats to keep track?
  7. How will credit be allocated? If it’s a paper, what does the author list look like? How could it change? If it’s a grant, what’s the money division?
  8. Do you have to worry about IP or commercialisation? If so, this gets tricky fast and makes 4 and 7 more complex. Sort this out BEFORE someone runs off with the IP and founds MicroGoogleII.
  9. Evaluation. How will we know that this worked for us and if we should continue? Sounds premature but if you have a rough idea of what you think denotes a successful collaboration, and you discuss it early on, then everyone knows the rough behaviour that’s expected.

Finally, here’s my list of 5 things to look out for as possible warning signs that your collaboration is not as solid as it could be.

  1. The other party has a lot of equipment resources and makes them available to you but does no actual research or writing, they just expect credit. Credit as an acknowledgement on a paper or grant app is one thing, expecting lead authorship or a slice of the funding is another. This isn’t always invalid but it’s almost always cleaner to pay cash money for resources, or resource access, and remove any doubt about credit. (A senior person who demands lead authorship regardless of involvement is much harder to manage here. That’s a political problem I leave to you although I might try and comment on it later.)
  2. Your collaborators have lots of ideas but never seem to produce anything. However, after five meetings, when you present the final work, they will still expect full credit for their ideas, regardless of the quality or usefulness. If you’re a non-producing ideas person, then other people will be just as grumpy with you. There are ideas and then there are ideas.
  3. Your collaborators rewrite everything that you submit, or redo the design, or experimentation, because it’s not up to ‘their standards’ or they just feel like it. I’m not saying that they or you are wrong – but your expectations aren’t aligned and one of you is going to get frustrated quickly.
  4. Deadlines slip or you end up in a deadline-chasing model that doesn’t work for you. Some people like to work in a panic close to the deadline, some don’t. If working up until the minute before hand-in is your thing, but gives your collaborator heartburn, don’t expect the relationship to survive. If you and your group can’t agree upon whether deadlines are really important or not, the stress risks breaking the relationship.
  5. You walk away from most of the meetings wondering why you bothered. If either of you is thinking that, you have to either address it up-front or finish what you’re doing, tie it up and find someone else to work with. Discussing it might be able to save the relationship (some people just don’t realise what they’re doing) but always be ready to close off your project neatly and start again elsewhere.

Collaboration is a fantastic way to get more results for less effort by recognising that people can work well together and, carefully controlled, it is the ultimate tool for junior academics to make it to being more senior (and tenured) academics. Just go into it with open eyes and be frank in your early discussions and it will work for you, rather than becoming a cautionary tale for the future.

Happy collaboration!

 



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