Finding Partners for Academic Collaboration

by | Feb 13, 2018

One of the hardest things about making the transition from graduate school to a post-graduate academic career is you no longer have a group of dedicated, smart people giving you regular feedback (this is one reason it is so important to build and maintain a healthy mentorship network).

Finding the right partners for academic collaboration—other scholars with whom you partner on editing, writing, teaching, activist, and research projects—ensures you have people who can push you, edit you, challenge you, help you, support you, cheer you on, and keep projects things going when life gets rough.

In this first installment in Ideas on Fire’s two-part series on junior faculty collaborations, I share some tips on how to choose the best partners for academic collaboration. Next week, I’ll tackle how to find projects for collaborative research and actually get them done.

Whether you are in a non-tenure-track academic position, are on the tenure track, or are seeking a tenure-track position, academic collaboration can help you meet your career goals if approached right.

The benefits of academic collaboration

Having completed around twenty academic collaborations since 2010, I have a lot of experience on joint projects. They’re great and challenging simultaneously. (To any of my present and former collaborators, if it seems like I’m writing about you, it is actually about those other people or myself.)

If you are seeking and do not get a tenure track job right out of graduate school (very few do), academic collaboration can help you get new research streams going while you balance publishing your first book, applying for jobs, and doing whatever contingent labor you have taken on in the process. If you do get a tenure track job, they can help you get research going while you get your bearings at your new institution and navigate your new service and teaching responsibilities.

With the right collaborators, “many hands make light work”—that is, you can write more and faster than you could on your own, which is great when your tenure clock is ticking away. If you don’t have access to research assistants (RAs) at your institution but your collaborators do at theirs, you can do different sorts of projects than you might otherwise.

You can access new or different funding streams and audiences for your work. You can work on topics and with methodologies that might not be central to your work but give your research a breadth that you wouldn’t be able to achieve on your own. And finally, you get to learn about other theories, methods, and topics (and as academics we like learning things, right?).

“Academic writing feels fun again” — IoF author Heath Fogg Davis

Take the stress out of publishing and see why so many interdisciplinary scholars trust Ideas on Fire to edit their books and journal articles.

Choosing your collaborators

Your friends can always give insight on your projects, conference buddies can talk out ideas with you, writing groups can help you realize you are not the imposter you feel like, but not everyone is someone you should collaborate with. Academic collaboration necessitates a mutually beneficial experience.

It is always flattering when someone smart says, “hey you’re smart too, let’s work together!” But the truth is, smart does not mean organized or on top of things, which are by far the most important qualities in a collaborator.

You don’t want to have collaborators disappear on you. There is often a “good” reason for their disappearance; your collaborators are human, just like you.

When you are working with the strict deadlines of funding bodies, journals, conferences, presses, and tenure clocks, however, delays are stressful and cause a cascade of backups for everyone involved.

It is hard to predict if someone you’ve never worked with is the kind of person who is going to ghost on a project, but you can do some background work to figure this out.

What is their own record of publications, presentations, editing, and grants? If they regularly publish and get grants, there’s a good chance that they know what they are doing and you have evidence they can meet deadlines and get stuff done. If all they ever do is collaborations, however, is that because they are relying on others to do the heavy lifting? Have they collaborated with people you know? Ask those folks what their experiences were like.

(Related: if someone ever asks you what someone is like to work with, be honest and fair. There is a big difference between gossip and a frank assessment of someone’s ability to pull their weight on a project.)

People have different work styles so if they are going to flake on some aspects of the project, are they adding value in other ways? Maybe they great at getting donations or identifying funding streams. They could be super competent at copyediting and formatting manuscripts. They might have an army of RAs who can grind out analyses. In general, they might have access to resources you don’t.

Collaborating up, down, and laterally

I have collaborated with people who are senior and junior to me as well as those who are at the same general career stage as me. Each one is fruitful and challenging in its own way. As with any professional network-building experience though, with collaborations it is important for you to consider how working with you can help your collaborators and vice versa before any agreements are made.

Working with people who are senior to you

This is a great way to learn how to do things like organizing conferences, editing journals, managing other academics, and securing funding. Working with people who are senior to you is a vital mentoring and professionalization opportunity.

However, even with awesome collaborators, your different career levels can affect your team dynamics, especially depending on how many people are involved. Senior scholars often have more administrative and service responsibilities, while as a junior scholar you need publications to come out fast as the tenure or hiring clock ticks away. You’ve just spent almost a decade working full-throttle on one major project (your dissertation), but they’ve been working on ten projects during that same decade. Your priorities and pacing are just going to be different, which is why finding the right collaborators is so crucial.

Depending on your relationship with the more senior scholars, you might also have to remind them that you are not a graduate student. You will always be junior, but if you think your voice is not going to be valued and you are just being used for your labor, maybe this isn’t the best opportunity for you.

If you do decide to work with more senior scholars, listen to them. Even when you don’t agree with them, they’ve been doing this longer than you and you can benefit from their perspectives.

Working with people who are junior to you

This is sort of like the senior colleague issue, but reversed. Importantly, you are going to have to do some mentoring and professionalization. Are you up for that?

Collaborating is also not the same as teaching or mentoring graduate students. If you are entering a collaboration with someone junior to you, whether they are a graduate student, postdoctoral fellow, or more junior faculty member, you want to find people who can add things you cannot to the project.

You also need to keep in mind that their timeline is shorter than yours. Graduate students need to finish their dissertations, which should be prioritized—if your collaboration isn’t their dissertation, do not expect it to be top of their list. Graduate students also need to prioritize their careers and job applications, regardless of what industries they are seeking positions in.

Make sure working with you can help and not hurt those goals. If you are working with someone in a post-PhD contingent position, like a postdoc, adjunct, or lecturer, make sure working with you is not going to derail their search for stable, long-term employment in whatever industries they are pursuing. If you are working with a tenure-track junior faculty member, remember that they are working towards tenure, and if you want to be a caring collaborator (or at least not a jerk), make sure whatever you are working on serves that goal.

And finally, don’t let their junior status fool you. If you value them enough to collaborate with them, take their perspective seriously. They might know more about some things than you do.

Working with people are at your career stage

This is both the easiest and the hardest arrangement. It is easy in some ways because you are generally on the same clock and are working at the same pace. If you are both on the tenure track, you both feel the stress that deadlines impose. However, because you are both at the same level, you also cannot give or get the same mentoring experience you can in the other two arrangements.

You also are probably part of the same networks, which limits your opportunities to build community beyond your peers.

If you are both on the academic job market, your collaboration also means you are likely to be applying for the same jobs. Be aware that this will inevitably produce “feelings,” including competitiveness that you will try to ignore or bury because you also like your collaborator as a person and want them to be employed and tenured. It will be hard to not compare yourselves to each other, and that will fuel the tenure-track/academic job market anxieties you are already feeling. Take a deep breath, make sure you have a good self-care system in place, and remember that academia is structured to make everything feel like a competition even when it isn’t and that you are resisting that unhealthy dynamic by doing something mutually supportive like collaborating.

Now that you’ve figured out who you want to collaborate with (and who you don’t), it’s time to figure out what projects you will take on. In the next installment of Ideas on Fire’s two-part series on junior scholar collaborations, I’ll tackle how to decide on and finish your collaborative research projects.

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Adrienne Shaw is an associate professor of media studies at Temple University, author of Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture, and creator of the LGBTQ Game Archive.

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