Given the increasing importance for both the academic job market and bagging research grants for collaborative research, it’s important to talk about team scholarship processes in some depth. Specifically: when, why, how, and with whom should you collaborate with on a research project?
When should you collaborate?
There’s really no “fixed” time per se, nor even a “best before” date, for engaging in collaborative research. You might collaborate with a classmate (or more) for the final paper for a course, and you could then extend this paper to a full-fledged manuscript for conference and publication presentation after the class is done. Or, you might team up with your academic adviser or some other faculty member on a project that s/he is looking for additional people to help with. Be on the look-out for formal announcements (via email or notes tacked on the department bulletin board) to join a research team, as well as informal communication at get-togethers with students and faculty.
Why should you collaborate?
Collaborating on a research project makes sense if you are dealing with a complex project that would benefit from many hands on deck, or if you have an ambitious research design in mind. For example, conducting 8 focus groups of 7 people each is hard for a single graduate student researcher, given the ongoing demands of coursework. But, for a research team of 4 people, this translates to only 2 focus groups per person; you can also share the load of analyzing the data, and writing your findings. Another important reason to work in a research team, is topical or methodological expertise, or access to particular research sites, which team members might bring and that you alone may not possess. Finally, working in a research team with a faculty member (or more) is an excellent idea, if you want to check out how s/he works, or you would like him/her to consider you for an advisee, or simply because you admire his/her prior work and want to be associated with him/her.
Pragmatically speaking, working in a research team is usually a good thing on your CV when you’re on the job market, because it indicates that you can work effectively with people. Getting a publication (or two!) out of this team effort is even better, because it shows you are both a “people person” and productive.
How should you collaborate?
Knowing your role and capabilities in the research team is most important to figure out while working collaboratively. Each member of the research team has a role to play — in fact, you may have multiple roles (e.g., literature review person and data analyzer), or these roles might change as the project progresses — and you should ensure that everyone knows what their roles are. Various groups evolve different ways of being productive; for some, a truly “head-less” or democratic model might work best, whereas for others, a leader emerges to keep the entire group on track. Keep in mind that, as your manuscript is submitted to an outlet, and you hear back from the editor regarding revisions (either to the same outlet or a different one), this model (and the leadership position) is likely to transform since team members will also be working on other projects (hello, dissertation!). For each version of the manuscript submitted, clarify among yourselves the order of author credit, to avoid confusion and bad blood if (hopefully: when) that version is finally accepted.
Finally, given that you will likely be working on solo research at the same time as this group project, you might well feel tempted to focus more on that rather than the team one. Should this prove true, and you are in charge of a crucial part of the collaborative project that you cannot spend much time on at the moment, then talk to your team to ensure someone else can step in till you become available again. If you do not anticipate being able to devote further time to the project, then be honest with yourself and the team, and gracefully bow out of the project, so that the others can forge ahead without wasting valuable time.
With whom should you collaborate?
Collaborative research is great with people who can contribute a new perspective, theory, or other expertise that you alone lack. It is also a good idea with faculty members whose work you admire. When working with peers, although interpersonal chemistry is useful, also to take into account their work ethic and style. If you are not careful, you might enter into a collaboration with friends you like and whose work you admire, but after some time realize that their “system” of work is entirely at odds with yours. For instance, they might be very flexible about group deadlines, whereas you design detailed spreadsheets for every step of the project! Opposites do attract both in research and love, but you should ensure that this is not a case of divergent poles pushing the research team asunder. Finally, consider collaborating with people who possess grant writing (and obtaining) expertise, and those from disciplines other than communication, in case your project has an interdisciplinary bent.
A version of this post appeared in the April 2014 newsletter of the International Communication Association.