This guest post was written by Justin Hart. Justin is a second-year Master’s candidate at UNC-IMS in Rachel Noble’s lab. He collaborates with local stakeholders to study the effects of stormwater on coastal water quality. He was previously a fellow at the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, where he studied beach health policy in the Great Lakes.
As Valentine’s Day approaches and we have a chance to reflect on relationships, I’d like to focus on one of the relationships unique to academia: collaboration.
It’s true, finding a suitable collaborator resembles the search for Mr. Right. In the era of Facebook and Instagram, we are accustomed to comparing ourselves to our peers and looking for opportunities to stand out. This bleeds into academia. Just like posting a new relationship status can get you a bunch of likes, the right collaboration can get you recognition. However, some collaborations do not go well, cases where the professional benefits come with significant personal costs, if they appear at all. Like puberty, grad school is full of confusing questions, exploration, and phases we prefer everyone forget. Because of that, I think we need to have “the talk” about what healthy collaboration looks like.
I am by no means uniquely qualified to talk about this—here at the Institute of Marine Science, all graduate students benefit from an environment that’s conducive to collaboration. In the Morehead City area, UNC, NC State, Duke, NOAA, and the State of North Carolina all have research labs. We call it “RTP East.” For the uninitiated, RTP (Research Triangle Park) refers to the area around Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill—the three cities act as the vertices of “The Triangle.” The area contains a massive research park as well as several universities, making it the foremost biomedical and environmental research hub in the United States (in our unbiased opinion). RTP East is the extension of this expertise. The labs have distinct skill sets with similar goals and a mission to create educational opportunities in coastal North Carolina. The staff, our “matchmakers,” if you will, put this ripeness for collaborative projects into perspective by encouraging and supporting us to find collaborators in the area. Basically, the setup of RTP East makes the chance of finding a collaborator feel like the chance of falling in love in a rom-com: basically guaranteed.
In any case, this setting has given me a rosy picture of collaborations, and in taking the time to reflect on your collaborations today, I hope you join me in imagining what they should be:
The Basics Are Familiar
There’s no rulebook for collaboration. For that matter, there’s no Disney heroine, sitcom, or novel that models a healthy academic collaborative relationship. However, thanks to popular culture, we already know what a healthy romantic relationship looks like, and the traits carry over surprisingly well to collaborative relationships. There should be trust, open communication, and commitment. Just as other relationships fall apart without these foundational traits, so too do collaborations. Look, I get it. I’m not saying you should marry your collaborator. But when we define success, we still see and tell stories of terrible teammates, of (mostly white, male) cutthroats who steal ideas and credit from their collaborators and colleagues. For the amount of time and personal investment that we put into our research, it’s important to insist on a culture of mutual respect. The point of collaboration is to elevate each other.
DTR Early: Communicate Your Needs and Expectations
Because communication is so essential, it’s important to DTR (define the relationship) early and address the needs of everyone involved. Every lab is different, and each person has their own strengths when approaching a project. For example, one of my strengths is that I am adaptable—I make to-do lists and am able to shift and prioritize my work. However, I only learned to be adaptable because I tend to procrastinate, so my work benefits when I have disciplined teammates. You may not be aware of the strengths you bring to a team, and that’s ok. There are whole businesses built around optimizing ~synergy~ or whatever. They produce the kinds of personality quiz your business school buddy probably had you take at some point in college to determine if you could still be friends. You know the type. I’m not saying you need to establish that your aura is compatible with your collaborator’s, more that when you acknowledge what you need from the collaboration and are able to communicate it, it’s more likely that your collaborator will be able to fill those needs.
The Fey-Poehler Rule: A Collaborator Should Advocate For You
Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are famously not only colleagues, but fans of one another. You can tell because they constantly praise each other. In academia, advocating for yourself is essential, and it’s easier when there are other voices that are eager to speak up for you. Collaborations give you access to not only the knowledge and tools of your collaborator, but their network and voice as well. Particularly in the sciences, if your collaborator works in a different field, their products and outreach will find groups of people you may not otherwise be able to access. Ideally, this means more connections, more opportunities, and potentially more collaboration, but this only happens when your collaborator is willing to talk about you. If you find that your collaborator doesn’t seem to talk you up, or if you find yourself unwilling to gush about a collaborator, it may be time to examine the relationship. In other words, if you don’t talk about each other the way Tina Fey and Amy Poehler talk about each other in their respective memoirs, figure out why not.
For example: One of my collaborative projects is with the Duke Marine Lab Unoccupied Aircraft Systems Facility. Dr. Dave Johnston’s entire group, and especially Col. Rett Newton, are generous with their time, deeply engaged, and infectiously enthusiastic about the work we do. Their unmanned aerial vehicles definitely elevate my research, and not just because they fly: they are fun, exciting, and, importantly, sterile (to be clear, I work with poop, and some people think that’s gross—this work literally pulls my mind out of the gutter). I am lucky to have them as collaborators, and you would be too!
On Tinder: Making Rules to Give Yourself a Say
As a single twenty-something Tindering my way through the universe, I’ve made some rules for using the app:
- Just because someone wants to start talking to you on the app does not mean you have to talk to them
- Just because someone asks to meet you does not mean you have to accept the invitation
- Just because you agree to meet someone does not mean you owe them… do kids read this? A hug. You do not owe them a hug.
They’re not complicated. These rules remind me that I have a say, and that my level of commitment does not increase without my agreement. At each of these checkpoints, there is an opportunity to push back and disagree. In the same way, there should be room for disagreement in a collaboration—heck, science is all about constructive disagreement. You know what your workload is outside of the collaborative project and shouldn’t overcommit in a way that prevents you from doing your other work. By extension, you know how much you can reasonably take on in a project. When what’s asked of you clashes with what you’re willing to do, it’s important to say so. If you do not feel that you can disagree with your collaborator, or that your collaborator creates situations in which you are unable to disagree with an expectation or the workload, I suggest something is wrong with the power dynamic.
Self-Care: The Difference Between Being Careless and Being Carefree
My final piece of relationship advice is that it’s important not to be defined by your relationship. Taking a step back from collaborations, a grad student’s most important relationship is unquestionably with their research. As graduate students, our research can feel like a reflection of self-worth. The need to impress, to excel, and to stay on top of things combine in a way that makes it difficult to be wrong, to make mistakes, or to be vulnerable. Sites like Lego Grad Student and WhatShouldWeCallGradSchool express this knot of motivations and doubts in a way that’s hilarious and eerily relatable. In that mixture of emotions, I recognize hope—hope that this work and this degree will lead to a better future. While it’s important to think about the future, it shouldn’t be treated a way to escape the present. Research shouldn’t be a student’s primary source of personal enjoyment or satisfaction—it’s not designed to be. Look, if twenty years from now you wake up screaming about your lost youth, I guarantee the phrase, “Gosh, I should have spent more time doing my research” will not come to mind. So when we imagine what a successful collaboration should look like, let’s take a moment to recommit to having a healthy relationship with our research as well.