How to collaborate successfully

IMG_3520 IMG_5676 IMG_5629 IMG_5399 IMG_3260 DSC09819 IMG_2982Successful collaboration is essential for a productive research career for most people. With collaborators we can tackle bigger problems. With collaborators we can see old problems in new ways, or find a path where before were only cliffs. With collaborators we can meld the joy of personal interactions with novel research. A collaboration may be like a mutualism where different people bring different talents to the project. It may be like a social group where the parties have similar talents, but together can achieve more than any could accomplish alone.

Collaboration brings responsibilities to oneself and to the others. We must trust our collaborators and be trustworthy ourselves. We must be honest with both our data and with our ability to deliver results in a timely fashion. We must be open and share any problems. If a collaborator sends us a manuscript, we should read it promptly.

Don’t pull rank with collaborators. Many collaborators will be your own students or postdocs, or advisers, current or former. Whatever your role, get back to the others quickly, or let them know where you stand.

Be on the lookout for new collaborators with whom you might do a project neither of you would even think of alone. Make a friend at a meeting? What can you do together? New ideas come as much from talking as from reading in many cases.

I hope we facilitated some new collaborations among the young graduate students of the Guarda course in evolutionary biology. Here’s the album.

At the last bonfire I could see friendships had been forged, nearly all across nationalities and universities. I could see trust blossoming. I could see excitement for research, for their budding careers. I could see cooperation, whether it was huddling in the rainy dark for warmth, or cooperatively roasting meat, cheese, or vegetables.

With the course organization we tried to encourage different kinds of cooperation. Dieter Ebert and Sebastian Bonhoeffer put the students in four houses, then put no more than two people from one house in a research group. We mixed genders in the houses, and universities in the research groups. We made sure no group had only one woman or only one man.

We then visited the groups frequently, witnessing the budding collaborations, occasionally redirecting conversations. We saw individuals that were dominant at the beginning listen more at the end, as they gained respect for other’s ideas. We saw real teamwork even among researchers forced into teams, like arranged polygynandrous marriages. Enduring collaborations from the group will be more voluntary, but it may be that the most important thing we helped these young researchers learn is how to collaborate, how to trust, how to listen if you are talkative, and how to talk if you are quiet. I await news of their next steps with curiosity.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Collaborating, Collaboration, Mentoring, Scientific community, Teaching, Workshops and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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