Yes, you should collaborate, but…

In my position and personal experience I’ve seen a number of collaborations. One of the first questions new faculty often ask is if they should collaborate or why they should. In general, people in the sciences are usually expected to collaborate. Chances are by the time that most science PhDs are looking for Post docs they have co-authored some papers with their advisors or been listed as a collaborator or co-applicant with their faculty advisor on a small grant.
For many people collaboration is optional but they feel it may help them with promotion and tenure, and it usually can if the group is functional and the work is completed. Some want to take on a larger research project which they cannot solely complete. While others like the camaraderie of working as a group. The decision to work with collaborators, for many, is very personal. Because the reason for choosing to collaborate is so personal, I’ve attempted to look at groups, roles and tips for collaborations to give you a broad base of things to consider.
Firstly, how can you recognize a flawed collaborative group? Some indicators that the group may be destined for failure include:

1) A collaborative group formed around the idea of a “mastermind” who is somewhat absent from the group, although clearly a person to whom everyone else is subordinate. These groups tend to be paralysed as they are unsure of the goals of the project.

2) A group who brings in a “CV” rather than a researcher as the primary investigator; with several researchers trying to articulate a project with the “golden CV” in the lead. Often, it is a far reach for the primary investigator, and they have a lack of ownership/interest in the project.

3) A group that is so determined to get money for a project that they neglect to consider that the idea they are working with does not fit the parameters of the grant.

4) A group where no one wants to be “dominant” and therefore, everything is done by committee. In these cases items that should be removed from the application are left, and it takes a long time to make decisions, both of which can be to the detriment of the application.
Secondly, who are the players in a functional collaborative group or partnership? There tend to be four major types (although some people can wear two “hats” in a small group).

The Workhorse: this person will do the bulk of the work on the application.

The PI (Primary Investigator): this is the person who is the primary applicant for the grant, and, in theory, the application builds on their program of research.

The Practical Person: this person has “real world” skills and can estimate items for the budget, or plan the timelines for the project, and often is better at completing the portions of the grant that are extremely specific and structured. This person may even be your institution’s research officer, or a senior research student you have conscripted (with pay) for additional help.

The Organiser: this person will set the timelines for the team, set meetings, and send emails to keep all the collaborators on track. You may also find an institutional research officer who will do this for your group.

Some grants allocate special funds for early-career researchers. You will want to be PI for those grants. However, you will want to make sure you are not being taken advantage of. Make sure your co-applicants are wearing at least one of the hats listed above.

Two things to be mindful of: the primary investigator is the person who is going to get the most accolades for receiving the grant. Some new researchers also are surprised to learn that if they are not listed as an applicant on the grant, but hired or contracted or given some research funds under it, this basically is a research contract which counts for little. And it is all of the work without any of the recognition.

Thirdly, some tips for collaboration:
• If possible, ask for funds for a student researcher in the grant. Most grants want to spend money on student salaries, and most times as applicants, you have to report on how many student assistants you have had.
• If allowed, ask for travel funds and a small piece of research technology for yourself in the grant.
• In general, don’t ask for less than $7000 per year in your application. Doing an application is too much work to ask for less. And, agencies don’t like to see you ask for a small amount that you should be able to get out of your institution via internal grants.
• Ask your Dean, Office of Research, or Department Chair for seed money for your project. Whether you use it for a student to do some legwork, or develop a bibliography for the project, you can also list it as a student supervised and money towards the project. Ask collaborators to do the same at their institution.
• Set timelines for the grant writing process with periodic check ins. If your collaborator drops the ball, a broken timeline allows you to exit gracefully during the application process. Continually missed timelines at this stage is a warning sign of things to come.
• Make sure the deliverables are clear and the application explicitly states who will do what. If, for example, your colleague takes a leave of absence, you don’t want to be on the hook for completion of all the goals laid out in the application. More likely, if a colleague simply “checks out” having the remainder of the goals listed will be helpful in boundary-setting.
• Plainly state to your collaborators how much further you will be going with the project if money does not present itself; some may expect the project will be going on regardless.
• Large projects may require the administration to draw up a Memorandum of Understanding between institutions.
• Always include cash or in-kind support from all institutions that the applicants come from. This generally makes your application more appealing.
• Keep in mind that researchers and their family members usually cannot be paid out of research grants.

Finally, pick people to work with that you respect, and try not to be so blinded by an intense pressure to succeed and produce that you rush into partnerships and collaborations. Ideally, take the time to consider each one and discuss it fully before agreeing to go on with it. Choose with the same discretion that you would pick a roommate.

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