Do You Know How To Collaborate?

by Annette Sophie Bösmeier

Nowadays, academic success is hardly imaginable without being part of research collaborations. However, we as early-career researchers may not be fully aware of the significance, the benefits or the potential challenges of collaborative work when getting started with our doctoral program. Recently, I had the opportunity to experience both the fruitful and the more challenging aspects of collaboration myself, and I would now like to share this experience and lessons learned with you.

A guide for early-career researchers  

In July 2019 I had the fantastic chance to meet more than 50 other PhD students from all over the world. We were brought together by a summer school organized by LERU (League of European Research Universities) and hosted by the University of Edinburgh. The theme of the week-long summer school, Building Research Capacity and a Collaborative Global Community, specifically focused on integrating international, interdisciplinary and intersectoral (i.e. working together with representatives from the government, NGOs, industry or with the public, for instance) research. During summer school, we worked together co-authoring a guide on collaboration in academia, which is intended for early-career researchers. This guide was created based on several presentations of experts and fellow doctoral researchers, our own experiences, interviews we conducted with senior researchers and, above all, intense group work throughout the week. 

Cover of our guide (left side) and some of our top tips for starting collaboration (right side) [1]  

We found that visibility in the scientific community and openness as well as a wise choice of project partners are a good basis to start collaboration. Moreover, many difficulties can be prevented when a joint vision and common language is established from the start, and when roles and responsibilities are clearly defined. Besides these pieces of advice, our guide contains the main points we have spotted regarding the motivations and strategies for starting collaboration, good practices and crucial success factors. We also included the key insights from our interviews as well as examples for typical challenges and how to overcome them. A section on general support and more of our ‘top tips’ complete our guide and make it a clear and easy to understand information tool on research collaboration. So, take a quick glance and be inspired!   

Take opportunities

The numerous group works we had during summer school showed me how much fun working together and engaging with others now and then can be, in comparison to constantly studying on your own. Working together very intensely with fellow PhD students of different fields of research also made me realize again how many different perspectives on a specific topic or different approaches to problem solving exist. It was amazing to see how such a setting can stimulate creativity. Besides expanding my own horizon, this experience also motivated me to self-reflect, for instance on how I approach others and what does or does not work to ‘sell’ my own opinion. 

In my view, such opportunities, which allow us to learn and practice collaboration in a playful way, are very valuable. These experiences help us to be more confident in future activities and also give us the chance to make new contacts which might prepare new collaborative projects. 

Be committed, but critical

Despite my positive experiences during different collaborative projects, many questions – mainly regarding communication in collaboration – have remained open and are still bouncing around in my head, pushing me to share some more thoughts with you: I feel that one of the most important things I learned is that we still have to be more aware of the process of working together. Rather than focussing on ‘hard’ success criteria only, we should also think more about enhancing a friendly, cooperative atmosphere and truly effective collaboration through positive team dynamics. 

Clear communication in a friendly, positive atmosphere contributes to truly effective cooperation [1]

Let me give an example: just like in most of the ‘usual’ project work, working on the guide during summer school meant for us to produce a good result within a limited amount of time. For this goal we often had to reach an agreement upon the specific issues and their prioritization, which in turn often meant following the majority opinion or the loudest and most decisive voice. I felt that in some instances this reduced the depth and creativity of the ideas that finally made it into our guide. As a result, the guide’s content provides a great overview of the key issues of collaboration in academia on the one hand. However, on the other hand, the lack of time and occasionally also a lack of dedication to listen to each other very likely have blurred some interesting nuances. 

Scaling up to the research project level, I believe that creative ideas and innovations are hampered by poor team work. Everyone’s opinion must have a chance to be heard and recognized. Therefore, we should reduce inequalities in communication that may arise for instance from hierarchical structures and social or individual factors. An initial step may be to be aware of such inequalities in the first place, and then address them if necessary, even if it makes things uncomfortable sometimes. There is no such thing as a single solution, however in my experience good chairing of project meetings and enough time and space for in-depth discussion is key! Moreover, we probably all agree on the importance of ‘good communication’ in collaboration – but such phrases may remain meaningless when no time is spent on discussing the content. How do we define good communication, and how can we realize it? 

In summary, we need to consider how difficult it may be to include the ideas of everyone and how long it can take to find common ground for effective work, not only between different disciplines but also between different people. Apart from the plethora of benefits of collaborative work, I think it is also important not to disregard its potential challenges. For our future projects, may they be in academia or not, we clearly have to be experts in our topics and be goal-oriented. However, being open-minded and able to listen and learn from each other are also crucial skills we need. I believe that tackling tricky problems is easier and more fun when we contribute to an inclusive and positive working atmosphere. Thus, my personal top tips for you are to keep your eyes open for great opportunities, be approachable and empathic, and enjoy getting to know new skills and new people. And don’t forget to share the enthusiasm about your research with others!

Annette Sophie Bösmeier
Physical Geography, University of Freiburg, Germany

If you have questions or comments concerning Annette's post, please leave a comment below, or send her an email. You can also follow her research on ResearchGate.


[1] Boesmeier et al. (2019). Research Collaborations. A guide for early career researchers by early career researchers. Edited by Woollen, E; Shinton, S.; Thomas, S. Developed during the LERU summer school in July 2019, Edinburgh. 

The guide is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license. You can find and download a pdf version of our guide on research collaborations here.  


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