The ABCs of Collaboration: Advice for Beginner Collaborators

Since the very beginning of graduate school, I’ve heard a lot about the importance of collaboration. I’ve wondered, how do collaborations start? When is the best time to start a collaboration? How do you ensure success given the seemingly inevitable problems that arise with group work? To gain insight into these questions, I asked my fellow graduate students at Wilfrid Laurier University to tell me about their experiences with collaboration. I’ve used their feedback, as well as my own experiences and observations, to create a list of practical tips for how to start, manage, and master collaboration.

How to Start a Collaboration

It starts by being open and listening to the perspectives of others. Gaining a deeper understanding of others’ ideas makes it more likely that you will have related ideas (and perhaps even ones connected to your own research). This is of course more likely if you are in communication with the people at your own school and other institutions on a regular basis. Beyond attending classes and talks at your own school, attend external talks, workshops, and conferences as much as possible. The more you put yourself out there, the more likely it is that you will meet someone with a similar question or idea. Oftentimes researchers are not intending to collaborate, but they discover through their conversations that their ideas and interests overlap substantially.

When and With Whom to Start a Collaboration

First, ask yourself whether you really have the time. Collaborations often require more time and organization than an independent project, especially if you play a lead role, so you must carefully consider how much time you can dedicate to collaborative work.

Next, consider with whom you will be working. One of the beauties of collaborative work is examining a topic from different perspectives, so it can be particularly helpful if your potential collaborators come from a different research area or theoretical perspective. Also, having complementary skills is ideal (e.g., one person may be an expert on statistical analyses while the other excels at writing). Additionally, you will want to consider the work practices and schedules of your potential collaborators (e.g., do they seem to respond to emails in a timely fashion? Are they fun and easy to communicate with? Do they have a particularly heavy course load this semester?). It is worthwhile to ask them about their work habits and working style to ensure compatibility and to also ask about how much time they feel they can dedicate to the project.

Managing and Making the Most of Your Collaboration

Coordinating a group of busy people is a challenging task. Here are some tips for keeping your project moving and preventing conflict:

1. Establish who the lead on the project is. By having a clear leader, one person is able to continually drive the project.

2. Set clear guidelines as to people’s roles in project, and establish the order of authorship early.

3. Divide up the work effectively by making a concrete plan for who will complete what tasks, and set deadlines and reminders for each other.

4. Try to meet face to face as much as possible, particularly when doing data analyses and when making decisions about the project where disagreement is likely (e.g., deciding on the slant of a paper).

5. Keep detailed notes and record minutes from meetings to track what decisions were made and why.

6. Communicate regularly, and remind everyone of the project’s status. Share information along the way with EVERYONE on the project.

7. Communicate with respect and consideration. Use constructive editing (e.g., use comments to explain why you chose to go with a certain type of flow), and be willing to compromise (and to be wrong!).

8. Give any task assigned to you a good attempt, but don’t be afraid to ask questions and get help when needed.

9. Be patient, particularly if you are not driving the project. You must be prepared to wait, and to be considerate of others who may not be able to contribute immediately all the time.

Finally, in some cases, you may have to consider the possibility that a project simply isn’t feasible. As one of my colleagues put it: “Collaborating is like dating—sometimes it works out, and other times it doesn’t.”

Newsletter Categories: