Why all grad students should do collaborative research

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This spring, I undertook two collaborative research projects with a colleague of mine in the CRDM program, Ashley R. Kelly. It was the first time I had ever done a seminar paper collaboratively (other projects, certainly, but never the largest one for the course). While at first I was not quite sure how we would manage it, once we got started things really took off and I never once wondered about project management. Overall, I have to say that I really enjoyed the two collaborative projects that we did and would absolutely recommend doing that for at least one of your courses if you are pursuing your PhD.

First, why I loved it: it may be that my research partner was fabulously on the ball, but we were both highly motivated to do well and to both hold up our end of the deal to contribute as much as we could to the project. Having a research partner held me accountable to all of the progress (and occasionally, lack of progress) that I was making. It made me think about the projects more often; gave me frequent deadlines throughout the semester to meet, and alleviated the last-minute crunch that everyone faces at the end of the semester. We toiled diligently through February and March, making the end of April much more pleasant than normal. Of course, you’ve got to choose a collaborator wisely: don’t pick the student who consistently procrastinates! You don’t want to resent your partner for not completing tasks in a timely manner. We also had an unofficial “open-door” policy for talking about our projects: we did not hesitate to speak up, disagree, or call each other on something we didn’t like/see as valuable for the project. These conversations were professional – not personal judgments of our own ability – so they were productive and did not create any resentment between us. I think this is extremely important for teamwork!

Now, why I think all PhD students should do this at least once while in school: collaborative writing is more and more prominent in academia and better mimics some of the group tasks you’ll have to do once you are faculty member. It seems now that any time I get an alert from a journal I’m following, six out of the seven articles in a new issue are co-authored pieces. Web projects are also highly collaborative; case in point, the project I’m working as a research assistant for this summer. It’s great professional training in a lower-stakes setting that also allows you to develop connections with those whose research interests align with yours; I know many faculty who still co-write articles or books with those they wrote with in grad school, even though they are now at different institutions. It could also allow you to supplement any of your own weaknesses and learn something new from someone who has perhaps more experience with a certain methodology or theoretical background, helping fill in scholarly gaps you might have.

Overall, collaborative research was a great experience for me this spring, and Ashley and I are continuing on some projects collaboratively, some of which I hope to share with you in the coming months. Next up: how Google docs (and spreadsheets, and presentations) can make your joint research and writing project a success.

Have you ever completed a collaborative project? What advice can you add to the ideas I’ve got here?