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Collaboration stations


The second of part of our guide to stepping up to mid career responsibilities

Perhaps, if you work in the arts and humanities, you thought you had escaped group work when you finished school. But as you gain seniority, you are less and less likely to work alone. 

Science and engineering research, meanwhile, is mostly less of a solitary endeavour. But there too, as careers progress, responsibilities shift from carrying out individual components of collective projects to coordinating and leading group work.

In all fields, evidence of scholarly collaboration, including editing publications, is important to hiring and promotion decisions, and many funding streams are now directed towards teams. 

Finding yourself in a position to oversee the research of others may intimidate you at first, and there is certainly a learning curve. Following on from my tips on PhD supervision, here I offer four pointers on making the most of these roles, from handling research networks to avoiding the pitfalls of collaborative publishing.

1. Set aside time to collaborate

Research collaborations come in various shapes and sizes. Those lucky enough to land a major multi-year grant can undertake projects that are simply too large for solo researchers, delegating aspects of the work to postdoctoral researchers and doctoral students. If you have scored one of these, reserve blocks of time for managing your team. Weekly check-ins and regular meetings will keep everyone focused and productive.

While big grants are eye-catching, an informal network of like-minded people can also move a field’s conversation in a big way. You can share materials, mentor one another’s students and publish together. Keep up with one another through email, reserve time to meet up at big conferences and use small pots of money for focused symposia. Sometimes informal networks turn into funded projects, but even when they don’t they can be very influential—and they come with a lot less paperwork than the big grants do.

2. Publish together responsibly 

Working as a team often means publishing as a team. Collaborative publications can make a profound impact when well curated by rigorous editors who have recruited leading voices in the field, but beware of creating or contributing to a hotchpotch of unconnected work of varying standard that is too unfocused to find an audience.

When you are publishing collaboratively, everyone must be clear about the division of intellectual labour and ownership. Early career members must receive credit for their work, and not least because advancing junior scholars’ careers is a mark of successful team management. You should also be aware that all too often the contributions of female scholars and scholars of colour are overlooked or appropriated. Effective intellectual leadership means confronting your own and others’ biases, and rectifying harm through appropriate action.

3. Set editorial expectations

Both as a team leader and as an increasingly senior scholar, you will find yourself editing research publications as well as writing them. You have certainly been on the receiving end of editorial intervention yourself, but be prepared to see things in an entirely new light as an editor instead of an author. You may find that editing is like herding cats, just more frustrating.

Your management skills will be put to the test as you coordinate article submissions, peer reviews and your publisher’s requirements. Clear communication about length, style and deadlines can help to avoid some difficulties, but it won’t eliminate them all. Give yourself a cushion by setting internal deadlines well in advance of external ones, and do not be afraid to say—politely—that something is unacceptable. Delivering bad news kindly but clearly will preserve your professional relationships and save your sanity.

4. Build boundaries

As you become more senior, you can easily find yourself responsible to, and for, so many people and projects that you lose sight of yourself. You might feel pulled in many directions, resentful of the continual interruptions and intellectually exhausted from never having enough time to immerse yourself in your own ideas. 

Caring for yourself means learning to say no. This is not easy, but there will come a point when you simply will not have time to take on anything else. It is best to realise that you have reached that point before you have so many plates spinning in the air that they all come crashing down. 

You can tell the disappointed party that you wouldn’t be able to give their project the attention it deserves, and you can tell yourself that by saying no to this thing you are effectively saying yes to other things. Both statements are true.

Justine Firnhaber-Baker is a senior lecturer at the University of St Andrews

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com