collaboration’s what you need

This is a guest post from Sara Shinton, Head of Researcher Development, University of Edinburgh — see Sara’s blog here.

An analysis of the portfolios of major research funders over the last 20 years would reveal many shifts, but perhaps the most marked is the trend away from single discipline, narrow topic research towards a collaborative model. Researchers are expected to develop connections in other disciplines and sectors and to work with them on projects on a grander scale, with a broader scope or to address specific societal issues.

At the same time, the transition from fixed-term postdoctoral researcher to open-ended lecturer increasingly demands the demonstration of a track record of funding success, independence from previous supervisors/PIs and a strong set of publications. It can feel like the clock is ticking as an ECR and your efforts need to be carefully focused to ensure your CV is crammed with tangible measures of success.

This presents a dilemma for early career researchers and their PIs. Career progression continues to follow the outputs that follow disciplinary expertise and visibility. Problems persist with the review and evaluation of interdisciplinary grants and publications (acknowledged by the forming of a new REF panel to review this in 2021, headed by Professor Dame Athene Donald who has written about the challenge they will face). The temptation (and advice from many people) to focus on disciplinary projects and outputs is significant.

Yet if you can look beyond the immediate hurdles of the transition from fixed-term researcher to research leader, the benefits of developing a collaborative approach early are clear. The Dowling Review of Business-University Interactions surveyed a range of stakeholders, asking “What are the key success factors for building productive, long-term research partnerships between business and academia?”. At the top of the list was “strong and trusting personal relationships” which often need to develop over time. Sadly, most of us learn more from a relationship in which the trust breaks down – surely better to do this learning early in your career rather than when you are trying to deliver on a complex, high stakes project.

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In 2015 I worked with the Institute of Physics to produce an early career researchers’ guide to collaboration and a common theme in the interviews with research leaders was the ease of working with people who can understand the different approaches of different individuals, sectors, countries and disciplines. Some talked about this being akin to learning a different language so you can communicate with your partners without ambiguity. This approach needs to develop over time and by engaging with a variety of people.

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Others talked about the importance of mutual respect between partners, particularly those in disciplines with very different research models. The last thing you want to find yourself as is the “hand-maiden” of the project, provided essential skills but not benefiting from outcomes. Again, by starting early and working on a range of projects you’re more likely to see and experience a range of good and poor practice. This is often evidenced by a questioning attitude, or in the words of Professor Tom McLeish who has spent a career collaborating:

I have two ground rules for a good collaboration. First: there are no stupid questions. Second: trespassers will not be prosecuted. This means that I welcome discussions about my science and expertise with people from other fields. Everyone has to be comfortable talking about each other’s’ work and it’s a sign of a healthy collaboration when this happens.

‘Future you’ will be thankful that you started to learn the languages of your partners, that you worked out which questions to ask (early) to flush out potentially difficult behaviours or attitudes, that you can articulate the value you’ll add and the outcomes you need, that you feel comfortable trespassing and with trespassers. Even though it feels like high stakes now, once you’ve secured your first opportunity as a research leader you’ll need to choose where to focus your time even more carefully.

Familiarity with different working styles should help you to recruit and manage a diverse team.

So where should you start?

  1. Put yourself out there – tell people that you are interested in working on other project and be clear about the capacity you have in terms of skills or time. Check with your PI about capacity, but use your career development as mechanism to convince them. Working with others will help you to demonstrate the mythical ‘independence’ that can seem elusive when you’re working for someone else. Another motivator is that you can be a means of positioning their expertise into new projects without them having to commit.
  1. Work out what you need from collaborations and ask for it. If you need to publish any work that you’ve done, make sure there are clear and fair processes for deciding about authorship, perhaps using the guidelines from the NIH Office of the Ombudsman. Remember that publications may not be the most valuable outcome for you. At this stage introductions to key groups or people (who may invite you into future teams or write letters of support for fellowships) or the chance to learn and train in new area may have more significance, but don’t be taken advantage of. If you are working with industry, initial projects may not result in publications but might establish a connection which will build over time.

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  1. Make what you are offering visible and easy to engage with. Update your university page and any other online profiles with clear explanations of your skills (that will be meaningful outside your narrow specialism) and examples of contributions made to projects. Think about how people might value your contribution to their work and articulate this in their terms not yours.
  1. Follow your enthusiasms and passions. I’ve heard many stories from collaborative people who have taken their expertise into areas in which they have personal interest in (maths modelling and bird behaviour, optics and medieval history). It’s also common to hear people say that they tend to collaborate with people that they enjoy spending time with. Look for people or ideas which cause creative sparks and look for ways to generate opportunities to develop towards these.

Collaboration is likely to be a feature of your research career, whatever your subject, so don’t delay developing your collaborative approach. Finding a balance between solo and collaborative work will help you now and in the future.

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