Networking and Establishing Successful Collaborations

by Anthony Snead

“Network! Network! Network!” I can hear the phrase ringing in my ears, and it transports me back to when I was a fresh PhD student in my advisor’s office. As early career scientists, we have been told that networking is important, and I took that to heart. I jumped at every chance to meet new people, even when I was already stretched too thin, but why? There are nontangible reasons like developing interpersonal skills and making good impressions to hopefully aid in future career transitions. However, there is also a more immediate reason, collaborations. We all know that science is collaborative, and strong collaborations can make or break your research. However, no one ever tells you how to transition your network into meaningful collaborations. While not all relationships are easily expanded into collaborative projects, I have some tips and suggestions, that I learned the hard way, to grow your relationships into collaborations that, hopefully, you maintain throughout your career.

A group picture of attendees, including the author, at a workshop for forming new collaborations

Take the Initiative

It is easier said than done! As an early career researcher, imposter syndrome is very real, and it will tank potential partnerships, if you let it. Like personal relationships, sometimes you have to make the first move, especially if they are more senior than you. With the busy life of most researchers and the constant demands on their time, your contacts and even friends may not have even considered a collaboration. We all know that as you progress in your career, demands on your time only increase, so you must be willing to take a leap, stick your neck out, and propose the idea, tactically.  I am not saying overwhelm people with your enthusiasm. Plant the seed of collaboration by highlighting your overlapping research interests and let the relationship grow, organically. Depending on how close you both are and your schedules, it could take time, but we are aiming for long standing collaborations so it will be worth the wait!

Mutually Beneficial

Successful collaborations are mutually beneficial. I know it sounds transactional, but it really isn’t! During my PhD, another graduate student was interested in applying species distribution modeling (SDMs) to some pathogen data. Even though she is an excellent microbiologist, she did not have the experience with the complex modeling techniques required for her data, which is where I came in. We naturally formed a collaboration. I taught her about SDMs., and she introduced me to microbiology. We were both able to dive into a new field alongside a friendly face. Your situation does not have to be so dramatic. It could be as simple as access to field sites or data production limitations. No matter the case, the relationship has to be mutually beneficial. No one is going to start a collaboration if it hurts them. With all you and your potential collaborator’s existing time demands, people often cannot get emotionally invested in a project if there is not some benefit even it is just answering an awesome question! Vice versa, do not start a collaboration with a parasite. Sometimes your relationships are perfect the way they are. We are focused on mutualism here!

Use Programs

We all know that mentorship and networking programs are a life-saver for us early career researchers, but have you ever considered using them to develop collaborations? Research coordination networks and societies have been increasingly focused on funding exchange programs and working groups of diverse researchers. Use those programs to your advantage. Even workshops can be a great place to expand your network and transition those to collaborations. After all, you are all interested in similar work. Some of the best relationships I have come out of programs like these. If a grant is aimed at funding a diverse group of researchers, mention it to your contacts. You would be surprised how many people are looking for a reason to collaborate, and the program gives them the perfect excuse.

One program through which the blog author developed collaborations: the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution

Make It Easy

Science is rarely easy, but no one wants to take on an additional burden. Do what you can to lighten the load of your collaborator. Now, I am not saying take on all the responsibilities because then it is not really a collaboration, is it? Once you have started a project, be human. As an early career ecologist, you might work at a different pace or be more desperate to get projects out. Remember, your collaborators are not on your timeline. Meet and discuss what is the best tempo for everyone. Balance productivity with humanity. The relationship is just as important as the product.

While the products of collaborations can be great and accelerate your career, the real benefit is the relationship itself. Collaborations are a natural evolution of your relationships that will help you grow and do better science. In a rapidly changing world, collaborative science is critical to increasing our knowledge and developing real solutions to big problems. So, start developing that collaboration you have been pondering, your input is valuable, and the question is worth it!