I Work Well With Others

Jan 16 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I grew up in a Ph.D. lab that didn't really do the whole collaboration thing. I had friends who would talk about their collaborations, and I just didn't get it. Who does what? What does who? When does anything actually get done? I experienced confusion and a sense of comfort, knowing that everything was always under my control.

This lab, my current lab, is like another world. I'd estimate that most postdocs in my lab have anywhere from 3-5 collaborations going on at any point in time. I totes love collaborating. So, without further ado, let me present my:

Top 5 Reasons to Collaborate

1. Hands down, positively the best way to learn new skillz. If you show me your banana, I'll show you my mangoes. You know how that goes.

2. Forces you to handle people. Everyone is different, everyone plans differently, communicates differently, works differently. If you ever want to be a PI or really anything other than a working hermit, this is a great way to learn how to set and accomplish goals with others when you are not doing all of the research.

3. Encourages socialization. When you don't feel like pipetting, you can go find your collaborator and "strategize" during a 2 hour coffee break. When labmates ask about your prolonged absence, you can make shit up about your "deep scientific discussions" and "ground-breaking theory development" over hazelnut whipped foam double caramel lattes.

4. If you're having a hard time developing that potential GlamourMag idea, remember that innovative work often is done at the interfaces of science. Period. Do it.

5. When you are feeling lazy or bored with the project, you can wait for your collaborator to do something and then blame the delay on them.

6. Misery loves company.

8 responses so far

  • Anon says:

    I love reason #6! I find collaboration nice too, especially when you feel that your contribution is valued equally, and there is some mutual respect there. When you feel that your not being listened too, it can get a little tough.

  • Pharm Sci Grad says:

    OTOH, all we seem to do in my lab is collaborative. So I look at people finishing up and go, you did that all yourself? That doesn't sound like fun. lol Plus, someone usually has good results on one of my projects, so that helps in the misery department.

    For me tho, I want more #4 (the awesome science part, not so much the glamourmag part)... 🙂

  • LOL #6.
    I didn't get to collaborate at all during my graduate studies, and it seems like everyone in my post-doc lab is collaborating with someone. There is even quite a bit of collaborating within the lab since there are people from many different disciplines. I've really enjoyed the collaborations although I was a bit skeptical at first. Like you, I really enjoyed being in control of every aspect of my project.
    I am super excited with the prospect of collaborating with biomedical engineers in the future. A couple of people already do and I am totes jealous.

  • Collaboration is great. However, it is important to be aware of the fact that when you are being assessed for independent faculty positions, one of the things that is going to be scrutinized is your ability to lead your own group using the techniques and approaches of the work that you participated in as a post-doc, no matter how interdisciplinary.

    Here's an anecdote to illustrate:

    A few years back we interviewed a job candidate who was first author of a very nice paper in a prominent glamour journal that described a very nice set of interdisciplinary studies including genetics, physiology, and biochemistry. The applicant gave a good job talk, describing all of the studies reported in the paper.

    During the question period, the applicant was asked a question about the biochemistry experiments that was somewhat technical. It wasn't of the level of minutiae as "what concentration of tween-20 was in your lysis buffer?", but was something that was more fundamental to the interpretation of the results.

    The applicant peered back at the questioner with a look on his face like "What a stupid question!" and said something like, "Well, I would have no way to know that. It was the other post-doc who did the biochemistry experiments, not me. I did the physiology."

    Sorry, holmes, but you're interviewing for a job running your own research program, whose appeal rests largely on its interdisciplinarity, not for a job as a rig jockey.

  • When it comes to sharing the techniques I do with others, I am usually happy to either 1) just do it for them (for credit) or 2) take them through the process step by step/ pass the technique along to them. More often than not, people just like me to do the stuff for them (and it's usually easier for me).

    When it goes the other way, though, I force myself to learn 90% of collaborative techniques because it is such a great learning experience. The only time I haven't done this is when it was something exploratory and I anticipated not needing the technique again. Oh yeah, and then there is the case where I'm not allowed access to the equipment in question...

    But yeah, don't be an ignorant collaborator. The idea is that people think better together.

  • CPP makes an excellent point. This goes doubly for if your collaborators are providing you with some special sample or material. When you go to interview, you will need to explain how you will 1) make it yourself (which might be impossible), 2) keep getting it from someone else, or 3) use some related material which is easier to make/get/buy and still do great science.

  • Tideliar says:

    Sorry wanted to write something grown-up, but this

    "Hands down, positively the best way to learn new skillz. If you show me your banana, I’ll show you my mangoes. You know how that goes." just lead to the first

    coffee -> nose -> keyboard moment of the year. Thank you!

  • Pat Bowne says:

    I too trained in a lab without much collaboration. Not that we didn't get along, we just all had our separate projects. Then I got my teaching job and discovered I had to formally teach Social Interaction in my sophomore physiology class! At the time, I felt it was a tremendous imposition. Now I think it puts my students leaps ahead of the pack.