After three years of hard work in three different labs, I still consider myself as a junior postdoc who is not yet…
Academic collaborations: Friend or foe?
I started my PhD in my current lab in 2016 and since then I have participated in over 5 national and international collaborations. If my calculations are correct, I have spent more than 1/3 of the last four years working full-time on these projects! For some of these collaborations the results did not reveal the significant differences we were hoping for, so the projects were dropped until further notice. For others, personal circumstances, and changes in the academic status of the collaborators did not permit the continuation of the project and finally, a tiny portion of these collaborations were successful and hopefully will lead to a publication in the future.
Overall, it was a nice change to work on different projects outside the focus of my PhD and meet people from different labs. Knowing the techniques other labs specialize in as well as the lab culture, including the work ethics and the supervision style, gives you a huge benefit when you will be choosing your next step at your career since you are exposed to more than one supervision and management styles. Academia is all, or at least should be, about knowledge exchange and information sharing so participating in collaborations broadens your horizons while you get the opportunity to develop a greater variety of skills. For graduate students who wish to pursue a career in academia, these collaborations can open doors for a future post-doc position in a great lab, while giving the advantage of knowing the PI and a few lab members.
But what if you are not interested in pursuing a career in academia or you simply want to finish your PhD as soon as possible? Should you still agree to participate in collaborations? Based on my personal experience, generally and very broadly speaking, yes. Having records proving that you are a valuable team-player and that you can deliver on projects outside your comfort zone are skills that are very appreciated in the world of industry. However, before you dive into an academic collaboration, you should set very clear specifics with your supervisor about the time you will be spending on these collaborations, your tasks, and the team’s expectations from you. You should also discuss how risky the project is and consider relevant aspects.
Collaborating in a pilot project
Starting with a pilot project means that the amount of work will probably be less since the number of data you will generate is smaller. The purpose of pilot projects is to obtain some preliminary results to evaluate the feasibility of the study including the relevance of the hypothesis, the techniques used and finally improve the study design before you proceed with a larger-scale project. The pilot project will give you the opportunity to train yourself without stress and let you and your collaborators evaluate the preliminary results prior investing more resources and time in the project. You will probably be able to keep working on your PhD project since the pilot project will be a smaller side venture.
I remember my disappointment when after more than 6 months of hard work, our collaborators finally plotted the data I provided and there were no differences between the control and experimental groups. That skype call ended with an ‘’oh well’’ vibe and the project was dropped. A way out of this mess is to consider register reports. Register reports is a great way to publish your work even if you end up with unexpected or negative results, since the whole idea is that through this process the bias against negative results is eliminated since the results are not known at the time of the initial review. There are over 200 journal that participate at this imitative including some well know ones in STEM disciplines like PLoS Biology and Nature Communication.
Another very important aspect you need to consider, is if your name will be in the list of authors at the future article which will, hopefully, be the result of the collaboration. Few of my friends have been working tirelessly on projects just to see their names at the acknowledgement section, while others did not see their names anywhere on the paper since their data did not support the storyline of the article, showed contradictory results or led towards a different direction and hence were not included. You will need to make sure appropriate credits are given and discuss various scenarios with your supervisor prior embarking on the long journey of experimenting, troubleshooting and analysis.
Academic collaborations can be a double-edged sword. If the specifics are clearly defined well in advance is an amazing way for PhDs to increase their academic network, expand their knowledge, diversify their skills and make their publication list longer. However, there are chances that a not well-developed and thought project can lead to delay in graduation, frustration, and disappointment. Communication between the teams and advance planning can ameliorate the negative impact on the partnership between supervisors and students and promote a healthy and fruitful collaboration.
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