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From Me to We: A Reflection on Research Collaborations

(To be read in David Attenborough or Morgan Freeman’s voice)
Over the past 3 weeks, the Gradifying team has covered the development and maturation cycle of the graduate student in its natural environment. From undergrad to Master’s, Master’s to PhD, and grad student to professional, we have watched this once clumsy aspiring scholar filled with uncertainty bloom into a confident and refined academic (still filled with uncertainty) ready to take on the world. (For more Morgan Freeman narration check out this video and here for David Attenborough).

Since my colleagues have effectively discussed the natural progressions of a student through grad school and since I have just returned from a conference in sunny San Diego (which translates to either Saint Diego or a baleen anatomical feature), the thoughts of future research collaborations are fresh in my mind. As such, I have decided to share a few of my thoughts on starting research collaborations.

Research collaborations can provide experimental opportunities that may otherwise be unfeasible by a single lab group. The pooling of intellectual and financial resources coupled with equipment and labour sharing is a platform for strong research projects. However, many collaborative endeavours fail to materialize for a number of reasons while others can go south very quickly. While I am still relatively naïve to the ways of the research world, I have some experience with successful collaborations and those that never left the ground. I have reflected on these experiences and have learned the following:

Know what you want
While collaborative projects pool resources in an attempt to reach a common research goal, every party involved has their own motives and desired outcomes from the project. Typically these projects are multivariate and designed to answer multiple questions. For reasons of feasibility, experimental design wizardry is sometimes required to develop experimental protocols that effectively answer the desired research questions whilst confining the design to a manageable scale. In these situations compromises must be made. This is where you must know what you want. This means coming to the table with your own specific research objectives, desired outcomes, and what you believe is the best experimental design to answer your question. It also means determining your ‘line’; that is, how much and on which aspects are you willing adjust the experimental design without compromising the ability of the study to answer your research question.

Know your limitations
This point speaks to both the limits of your technical expertise and your time. The first is obvious; know what you value you are adding to the project and know where that ends. It’s better to under promise and over deliver than to commit to something that you reasonably cannot fulfill. Realizing your own technical limitations and saying no can be difficult, but you’re better off signing up for projects that aligns with your technical expertise rather than attempting to learn a new technique as the study begins (i.e. learning a new assay).

Sizing up the perceived time commitment and considering your time constraints is also crucial before embarking on a collaborative project. Unless data from this collaboration significantly contributes to your dissertation, it is important to consider what (if anything) will be sacrificed to make room for this project.

Delegate and define roles

The roles and responsibilities of each collaborator can be ambiguous, especially in a project with multiple PI’s. It is prudent to establish the expectations and delegate the roles of all parties involved. If not, there is a risk of deferral of responsibility, uneven division of labour (i.e. picking up someone else’s slack), and breakdown of communication.

Strike while the iron is hot
In my experience, a lot of collaborative discussions happen at conferences or seminars, typically with researchers that I have just met. These interactions are exciting and spur on considerable motivation to join forces. If you foresee an interaction leading to a research opportunity, follow-up ASAP! Use the momentum of your meeting to drive ideas into action. Or at the very least begin a dialogue. If left unattended for too long, the allure of the original discussion may lose its lustre and/or the other party may have moved on.

The obvious advantage of collaborating with a research team, especially for a budding researcher, is the potential for multiple publications emerging from a single project. This coupled with opportunities for learning new technical skills and making meaningful connections with other labs (post-doc anyone?) can greatly expand your research portfolio going forward.

Posted in All, Conferences, General, Student Perspective

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