Creating that network of collaborators

23rd March 2014

While there are many different ways to be successful in an academic career, it appears to me that having a good network of collaborators seems to make the job much easier and more engaging. I will explain that further ... it is easier from the point of view that your publication record is able to grow much faster and it is more engaging because you are able to discuss your projects as a team instead of thinking about them individually. The collaborative research approach may not be everyone's prefered working style, but a recent article in The Conversation, The challenge of the modern scientist is to avoid career suicide, states in the opening that they believe the time of the individual scientist has past. This may be true, but if you feel like you are more of a lone scientist, you are not any less likely to be successful in your career. This blog is going to discuss my experiences of trying to build up a group of collaborators.

It starts with your PhD (or even earlier)

Some people are fortunate and complete their PhD at an institution with many people working in the same or similar field. This was not my experience, but for others I have spoken to said that in this work environment discussing possible projects became more of a social thing and did not require a large investment of effort. It seems that when working in such a group you are able to strike up friendships and working relationships by simply chatting to your fellow workmates in the office or at different social events. If this sounds like your research group, then this is an opportunity not to be missed. I found it beneficial to get to know not just the academic staff in my research group, but also my fellow PhD students. Remember that a lot of the PhD students that you meet will end up as academic staff in the future and these initial pieces of communication may just be the thing that helps you start a good working relationship.

During your PhD you will be given the opportunity to attend a range of different conference types. These could be small single stream workshops or large international affairs with thousands of delegates. Each of these conference types calls for a different approach for meeting and getting to know your fellow colleagues. I don't really know the best way to do this and it is important for you to find your own style. What I did find is that the small workshops were much more successful from a networking point of view, since everyone is in the same place the whole time and not buzzing around to many different rooms. However, the most important thing about attending conferences is that you should try and have fun. If I was having fun, I found that I was more willing to talk to people and really get the most out of the conference.

When you are trying to meet those people who you are interested in working with, I think that it is important to not have the singular goal of creating a professional network. Every one that you want to work with is a person, so I feel that you should try to get to know who that person is and not just their research ability. What you may find is that you can create a good group of friends who all share at least one common interest (your field of research), but there are possibly other interests that you may also share. Along the same lines, you should not solely talk to people who you think will aid your career progression. Talk to everyone, because you will probably find really interesting people. In turn, this may help build you career in other, unforeseen ways.

During your PhD try to arrange an international research visit

There are two things that go along with this point. The first is that an international research visit during your PhD is a lot of fun since you get to live in a foreign city. Second, a visit gives you the opportunity to work with an expert in your chosen field. I was told by an colleague that academics like to have PhD students visit because it doesn't cost them anything and the student will write a paper for them. To me this seems like a win-win situation. Additionally, this visit opens up the door to a continued academic relationship with someone who is not your supervisor.

Try your best to talk to everyone

Now, my background is mathematics and there are a number of stereotypes that go along with that. The first, and most common, is social awkwardness. While I don't think that I am socially awkward, I do find that it is not always the easiest to strike up an interesting conversation with people. But if you always think that you have nothing to say, you will have nothing to say. It is then important to just try and talk to people, at the very least you will say hello to someone who may just remember you the next time you meet. All of a sudden you cease being a stranger and become an acquaintance, meaning that each subsequent conversation should get easier.

In your postdoc years and beyond

Now, I have just started my first postdoc, so I don't have a lot of experience to give for this part of the blog. However, I have had some successful communications that seem to be leading towards collaborative relationships. Because I am new to the research group, I decided that it was necessary for me to talk to as many people as I could (are you seeing a theme here) and introduce myself. With that, I was able to get to know many people in the institute and discover common research interests. It is through these small conversations aimed at getting to know each other that it was possible to discover the possibility of forming future collaborations.

After discovering these common research interests and a willingness to work together, I felt that some proactive work on my part was required. This involved organising a number of meetings with people in the department and discussing possible research projects. At this stage, very few of these meetings have eventuated into a complete research idea that we are willing to pursue, but the positive thing is that we are aware of a possible collaboration and will act on it if the right project appears.

Final words

Through this blog I have tried to put forward a few ways of building collaborative relationships with you colleagues. All of this is from my own experiences and observations, which has been shaped by my PhD at UNSW and my first postdoc at ZIB. I know from talking to other people in similar situations that their methods of building good working relationships can be very different to mine. As demonstrated in the text above, the best method for me is talking to everyone as if they are an interesting person and then building off that. The key thing is finding out what works best for you and putting that into practice as much as possible.