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Careers Café

The ups and downs of collaborations


I got a worried email from a student the other day, who had a conflict with a collaborator and became concerned about the implications. While the details will vary with every case, this did make me think about the many projects I’ve worked on: both those that were done as stand-alone projects, and those in which I had many students collaborate on a single program, or in which I collaborated with researchers from other universities. Cumulatively, my students and I have all had a wide range of experiences, ranging from “lost” and irrecoverable data, to those intangible moments of insight that you know could never have been reached with a single brain.

Single-student projects certainly have a variety of benefits. They are, by their very nature, relatively cheap; this means that smaller or regional grant programs can be patched together to complete projects that are interesting and fun, but are perhaps not as media-friendly as some of the bigger projects. Certainly, this has helped me to conduct research that I think is important, but might not address endangered species, climate change, or other buzzwords of the day.

Single-student projects also allow graduate students to really control the direction of the project. In addition, students will almost invariably get project management experience in addition to gaining typical research skills. While the success of the project becomes almost entirely driven by the quality of the student – a genuine risk with some of these projects – it is also of a manageable size, such that it may be massaged in the direction of the student’s interests, and this creativity can bring great insight.

Multi-student projects, or collaborations with other research teams, have their own benefits. Much greater sample sizes can be achieved with these larger groups; as an ecologist, my life sometimes feels like an uphill battle to find just one more nest, and as such, this can be a huge relief. Bigger teams bring more expertise, and thus sometimes more networking and mentorship opportunities for grad students. It can open up students’ perspectives and make them see their study in the context of a much more holistic scientific perspective. My own learning opportunities have been greatly expanded, and one picks up on the enthusiasm of colleagues with different areas of expertise than one’s own. This can bring a fresh perspective to long-term projects. Finally, the collaboration, collegiality, and personal growth of students on these teams is often a pleasure to behold.

But these big projects… boy, they can be nightmares, too. Students who wonder if other projects are expanding into their thesis areas too much. Variation in field techniques. All the typical problems associated with more equipment, more personnel and more data. Collaborators who initially seem perfectly sane… but then… well, enough about that. The point is, there’s also a cost to the benefits of these larger projects.

I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to conduct research. For me, a combination of large and small projects gives me the best of both worlds. But it definitely depends on the students involved. We have to pick the right project for the right student, and then, hopefully, both blossom.

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