Collaborative research is a great way to meet your professional goals. After you’ve identified partners for academic collaboration, the next step is to create projects that help everyone involved shine. Here’s how to decide on and actually finish those collaborative research projects.
Which projects should you do?
Regardless of whether you are applying for academic or non-academic jobs, you should focus on collaborations that can set you apart when you apply for positions.
For academic jobs, depending on your field, this will probably mean first- or second-authored journal articles and books, grants, and projects that will pay you enough to stay fed and keep a roof over your head.
Edited books and special issues of academic journals can be rewarding collaborative research opportunities but they take a long time to come out, are a lot more labor than anyone thinks before they do them, and often showcase other voices rather than solidifying your own. Only consider these if you are already making clear progress towards tenure in all the categories your university requires. I say this having edited one book and one special issue of a journal on my way to tenure and another book while I was preparing my tenure file. I like each of these volumes and my co-editors very much and I was otherwise fine in terms of my other tenure requirements, but I still wouldn’t advise taking on these projects unless you have a compelling reason.
Conference organizing can also help expand your network (particularly if the conferences are well run), and show your administrative skills—such skills are also very useful in non-academic job searches. If you are on the tenure track, conference organizing is also a good way to let people know who you are for future tenure letter writing purposes.
Why do you want to do this collaborative research project?
Who is excited about this project? The worst collaborations are the ones in which no one is super jazzed about the project. If you are all going through the motions because there was money available, it sounded like a project that someone should do, or it fell into your lap, it doesn’t matter how on top of things anyone is—no one will make it their priority.
If you go up for tenure, your career narrative will have to explain how this collaborative research project fits into your research profile. If you can’t do that when you start the project, it’ll be super hard to do it when you go up for promotion. In that case, maybe this isn’t the project for you.
Who has to do what for a publication to come put?
One of the benefits of collaborative writing is that you can get out work you could not have done alone. However, that also means you need to weigh how much you are counting on publications from specific projects.
Particularly if you are on the academic job market or tenure track, you need the outputs of your collaborative research to come out in a timely fashion. If you cannot independently complete certain parts of the project (like analyses or write up that require a specific collaborator’s expertise), then you should not count on that publication.
Author order also matters (and matters differently in different fields), so be sure the ones where you are in the lead author positions are the ones you can be sure will get out on time.
Things to figure out early
Set out author/editor order early on, and make sure everyone knows what the end products of this collaboration are going to be. If the project changes and one person ends up taking on more of the writing/editing, have a conversation about switching the author/editor order on any publications. Do not wait until you are about to submit an article or book manuscript to have “the talk.”
Similarly, if you are building something that could be a commercial product, figure out how you are dividing the royalties, copyright, and intellectual property (IP). Most campuses have an administrative office dedicated to helping you figure out patents, trademarks, copyright, and IP sharing, so you might want to have that office involved in your conversations about this.
Decide when and where you’ll be publishing or presenting aspects of the project, if it is one that will have multiple outputs. Have a plan for when and how that is all happening, which will help mitigate (but not eliminate) some of the pacing/timeline issues in different collaborative pairings.
And finally, before you get too far down the collaborative research road, figure out when the project will end. Is this a grant that will be over in four years or is this an area of research you could work on together for decades? Is this one article, a series of articles, or a topic that you can write about together but then want to work on separately? How will you differentiate your work from one another if you stop working together?
Importantly, when is it okay to say “I’m out” or “you’re out”? Sometimes collaborations don’t go well and either you need to leave because it is no longer mutually beneficial or you need to ask someone who is holding things up to step aside. In both cases, if you’ve chosen the right collaborators, these can be mature and frank discussions that leave everyone feeling comfortable with the decisions made.
As this series has shown, collaborative research let you produce a scale, quality, diversity, and quantity of scholarly work you simply cannot produce alone. Keep these tips in mind as you decide which partners and projects work best for you to have fruitful and rewarding collaborative experiences.