Collaboration keeps your research program alive


If you look at scientists in teaching-focused institutions who have robust research programs, there’s one thing they tend to have in common: They have active collaborations with researchers outside their own institution.

What is the traditional measure of a strong research program? The bottom line is that a PI who produces peer-reviewed research is productive, and one that doesn’t produce papers isn’t productive*. (That’s so self-evident, it’s tautological.)

If you’re shooting to build and maintain a productive lab in a teaching institution, what is the most necessary ingredient? I would say: Collaboration.

There are a lot of reasons why collaboration is so important to maintain productivity.

Collaborations result in participation in more projects, which presumably results in more papers. Moreover, there are also long-term synergies that happen from collaboration that are required to keep the lab productive. Without collaboration, your level of productivity probably isn’t going to be high enough to attract collaborations.

If you’re not collaborating, that obviously means you’re working on your own. Junior faculty in teaching institutions often like the idea of being able to do their own science, at their own pace, to focus on their own research priorities and their own students.

The idea of settling into a right-sized research agenda for a teaching institution, without worrying about outside pressures, has a lot of appeal. But, here’s the thing: This approach is not sustainable. Research programs require a certain amount of critical mass to stay active, and collaboration might be required to maintain that critical mass.

Far too often, I’ve seen new faculty members at teaching institutions focusing so heavily on getting their own labs up and running that they’re not focused on maintaining prior collaborations and building new ones. Building your research program means building collaborations.

If you are planning to do your own projects working with just your own students on your own campus, year after year after year after year, it’ll be on you every single time to make sure every paper gets written up. Maintaining productivity like that in isolation is hard to do, and if your productivity is too low, then the research program will run out of momentum. And even if you keep up that slow momentum, then it might not look that productive from the outside. And that outside perception matters, if you want to get more science done and have people read it.

For most of us, including myself, I don’t really think it’s possible to maintain a level of productivity that is externally and internally recognized as “successful” without pulling in off-campus collaborators. If all I did was work with my own students, without being involved in bigger collaborations, then I wouldn’t be in a position to be writing papers (or have my name on other papers) much at all. If productivity dips below a certain level, then people just stop seeing you as a person focused on research. And working in a teaching institution, once people think you’re not getting research done, then opportunities dry up.

In teaching institutions, we need to deal with the stereotype applied to us. Folks might think that we lack the expertise, facilities, time, or personnel to be genuine collaborative partners. There are many people that don’t have this prejudice, but we gotta remember it’s out there. Some colleagues might have to think of you as an atypical scientist at a teaching institution, who is there by choice rather than inadequacy**. You and I know that we aren’t any less talented because of where we work, but that’s not a uniformly held idea.

There are different kinds of collaborations, and they all can matter:

  1. You’re called in to do a specialized task for someone else’s project. For example, I and a student of mine worked on the ant identification and data analysis for a project of a student of a colleague of mine. We were able to offer something that others couldn’t readily do for the project. To create this kind of collaborative opportunity, you have to have enough visibility so that others will approach you for this work.
  2. You have a specialized task required for your project and you pull in a collaborator. To pull this off, you need to be productive enough that someone will think it’s worth their while to work with you. If you don’t have a history of collaborating with others, it’ll be harder to pull in a collaborator who will take you seriously when you need it.
  3. You invite a collaborator to build a project together with you. The project has to have a lead, but it’s far more than one party pitching in on a discrete piece. If you’re writing a grant with someone, for example, this would fall into that category. (I’m working on one of these right now, a new project with two other collaborators, and we’ll all have our pieces that dovetail together.)
  4. The diffuse big-project-collaboration. You contribute your smallish role to a massive endeavor. I think this is how most experimental particle physics is done, for example. Some ecology happens this way, too. Usually, the only way that you can be involved in these big projects is if you’re connected enough that someone will think of you.
  5. The mentored-student collaboration. In the past several years, I’ve partnered up my students to work with scientists at other institutions. My role as can be highly variable — one one hand I could be deeply involved in design and implementation, or on the other hand I could just be handing my students over to work with someone else. I’ve done both (and the latter, I’m typically not an author), and often it’s somewhere in-between. I personally lack the capacity to get all the science done that I want to get done, and if there’s a project that can happen by pairing up my students with other people, then that’s just peachy. For example, I often have had undergrads in my lab working closely with PhD students and postdocs from other labs in the field in Costa Rica, and more recently their projects have been collaborations building on ongoing projects in my lab.

Okay, so collaborations are important. Do I have specific ideas about how to go about this? Why, yes, I do.

First, regularly going to conferences is really important. Your connections with the scientific community — “networking” — is critical. If someone who is productive from an R1 institution doesn’t go to conferences, folks will tend to assume that they’re just too busy or have other priorities. However, if you don’t go to conferences, then because you’re at a teaching institution people will often assume that you’ve just hopped off the research wagon. If you keep going to meetings regularly, and keep presenting new stuff at these meetings, then people will know that you’re in a position to collaborate.

Second, make sure you have a specialized skill set or resource that your research community will need. This could be anything, and also evolve over time. (In my particular situation, I have experience working with a few species in the field that serve as great model systems, and I also am experienced working with whole colonies of rainforest ants, and can identify them promptly to species — this provides access to a very useful experimental system.) You want other people to think that you would be able to provide something that few other people can provide. Sometimes, professors at teaching institutions are advised to specialize in a non-competitive academic niche so that they can work on papers without competition from bigger labs that can scoop your work. I disagree — it’s better to develop a niche that is useful to other people and make yourself available to work with others. Instead of avoiding getting scooped, work with the people who otherwise would be scooping you.

Third, don’t be shy about approaching people who you don’t know about collaborations. They worst they can do is say no. If you think someone is capable to deliver what you need for the project, and it wouldn’t be a huge effort on their part, then signing on to that piece should be a no-brainer if you have a credible case that the project will be successful and published.

Fourth, don’t underestimate the upsides of working with grad students and postdocs  in other labs. I’d say, without a doubt, that some of my best collaborations have been from partnering up with junior scientists who I know and like, who are interested in working with me, and also who can be tremendous mentors to students in my lab. I think having doctoral students work with students in my lab is very important for the development of my own students. I think this also a mutualism, because most grad students also need to build their own professional identity and build up their CVs by being involved in a bigger variety of projects.

Last, keep your collaborations on the front burner. You don’t want to play to stereotype and be the person who lets collaborations slide. (I’ve been bad about this lately, I have to admit, and that’s from overcommitting to too many things I’m interested in.)

So, in sum: Collaboration isn’t just a good thing, it might be necessary to keep your research program from falling apart.



*Of course, it’s common for scientists who don’t produce many papers to train many students who have great professional outcomes, especially in primarily undergraduate institutions. In this post, I’m just focusing on the scientific outcomes rather than the training aspect.

**In our last faculty search, we received so many recommendation letters that explained how applicants might not have the research chops for an R1 position, but they are good enough for us. These were from condescending PIs at major research institutions who honestly don’t think of us as real researchers. Ugh. We didn’t hold this against the applicants if their other application materials indicated they weren’t as clueless as their letter-writers.

One thought on “Collaboration keeps your research program alive

  1. This is so spot-on. I’m just starting year 4 on the tenure track at a liberal arts college, and my collaborators have been lifelines. My group’s first papers (stuff where my students/postdocs/I are first authors and all of the work was done at my current institution) were just published this past year, and we’re working on others… two of the three that I hope to get out on in the next year came out of collaborations, and I think they’re really win-win for both our groups.

    Another lifeline has been being able to hire a postdoc — someone whose sole job is to do research all the time. He’s also been key to maintaining my collaborations (and building new ones). I have expertise but not time to farm it out to others, so I trained him, and now when people come knocking on my door for help with my particular set of expertise I can say, “Here’s a general outline of how to do what you want to do, and my postdoc here has been developing some documents and tools to help with this — I suspect he’d be willing to work with you on it if you’re interested.” And then, boom, new collaboration for me, and my postdoc broadens his collaboration base, and we get on more papers, and our collaborators appreciate our help, and all is right with the world. It’s worked out well so far, at least!🙂

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