If you do not have the appropriate expertise for your proposed Research Plan or access to needed equipment, facilities, reagents, or other resources, adding a collaborator or consultant can help you fill these gaps.
Finding a Collaborator is Like Dating
It’s easy to find somebody to date, but more difficult to find someone to be in a long-term relationship with. Collaboration is sort of like this. It’s easy to find people who like the idea of co-authoring a paper, but it’s difficult to find someone to trust, who communicates well, and is committed to the journey.
Most collaborations are just something that morphed out of a normal relationship, or are a direct result from a mentor-mentee type relationship. But I want to talk about the other type of collaborations — a stranger meets stranger situation that results in a high IF publication. “Where do you find these strangers?” you ask. Well, it’s like dating.
Like dating, finding a collaborator is both natural and unnatural. Unnatural, because you have to be open, expecting, and prepared for the opportunity to drop in your lap–but natural because they often do–just fall in your lap. If you are open, and looking to meet collaborators, they will find their way into your life one way or another. But there is no prescribed way of meeting people or becoming collaborators with them.
Always Start with Drinks
As with dating, don’t commit to dinner, always start with drinks. Begin with a low-level social investment, and don’t make it too hard to walk away if the dynamic just isn’t there. If you jump head first into a massive collaboration only to find out they are micro-managers who render you homicidal—well, that’s just a recipe for disaster.
50 Ways to Make Research Friends:
Here are some things you can do to be better prepared for collaborating opportunities:
- Be active and social in a community (LinkedIn, Professional Conferences).
- Be prepared with a list of potential manuscript ideas.
- Ask about their current interests and how you might help them on a current manuscript idea.
- Be prepared with a list of potential target journals.
- Know your audience and your end-goal (peer-review, original research, academic promotion).
- Don’t force it. Just open your eyes and make new friends.
- Clearly understand the role of the collaborator. Clearly communicate your expectations and what you want to get from the relationship. Condense this into a 2-minute elevator speech and have it prepared.
- Always be reading. Delegate a librarian to do a literature search for you on a new potential manuscript idea each month. Then read everything you can about that topic. Redefine your research topic as you discover and read the literature.
- Contact the competition. Ask researchers who are currently publishing in your topic/field of interest for coffee, find out if their homicidal maniacs or pleasant people to have breakfast with.
- Take your time. When you finally meet a potential collaborator, setup a few meetings, toss a few ideas back and forth, get a feel for the relationship and if it’s going to work.
- Don’t put all your cards on the table on the first date. A good collaboration is a serious long-term investment which has some risk of not working out. Again, setup a few meetings, toss a few ideas back and forth, get a feel for the relationship and if it’s going to work.
- You are not your mentor, you are unique. Keep in mind that just because Person B worked really well with your mentor, doesn’t mean that person will be a good match with you. Personalities and work styles differ. Just because a collaborator is recommended to you by a source that you trust completely, doesn’t guarantee that the collaboration will work out.
- RePORTER is your friend. Search for people who have recently won grants in your topic area. These are folks who are interested in your field, and perhaps haven’t published results yet. These are your colleagues–and competitors–so, make the connection, take your time, and see what shakes out.
- Poster sessions are also your friend. Usually, a poster precedes a manuscript/publication. If you see a poster in your field/topic, it’s a great opportunity to open the conversation to a potential collaboration.
- Funding first sometimes helps. Occasionally, if you are going for a ‘big fish’ it helps if you have funding lined up to pay a portion of their salary for their effort in the collaboration. When you want to start this conversation, know the grant you’re applying for, have the major portions of the application drafted, and ask your potential collaborator for their input, slowly and with forethought.
- Onboard new researchers at your institution. Yes, HR probably does all the hiring, but there’s no reason why you can’t be involved! Offer to help new research employees get started.
- Attend the after-work cocktail hour. Yes, they typically suck, but everyone in the room will have the same objective that you do — to make friends.
- Talk with the Faculty Development Office. If you have a decent Director of Faculty Development, there’s a good chance they have some opportunities available to meet new colleagues — especially the interdisciplinary kind!
- Join the ‘New Member Welcome Committee’ of your favorite professional society. Guaranteed there’s a ‘welcome newcomers’ event at the annual meeting. New members are most often ready, willing, and chomping-at-the-bit to make new connections.
- Be the helpful go-to person at work. Make a serious effort to help those around you and let them know you’re here to help.
- Volunteer, as close as you can, to your field. For example, I work in a research institute that is attached to a children’s hospital — and I volunteer in the hospital. I’ve met patients, nurses, doctors, and others who all have serious collaborator potential!
- Think Employee Wellness and join a walking group. My employer has an outside walking track that is a magnet for every employee on gloriously sunny days. We also have an Employee Wellness Center with specific events and classes. This can be a great way to meet new colleagues.
- Connect with your alumni association. Many universities have alumni events and ways to network.
- Commiserate on areas of common struggle. When you have a process-problem that seems to be company-wide, use that as a way to meet new colleagues. Ask them how they’ve dealt with ‘problem x’ in their own laboratory.
- Make time. Consistency is a big requirement for maintaining and building relationships. Set aside time each week to grow your relationships.
- Eat lunch away from your desk. Seriously. Away from your desk.
- Post a “Come Chat with Me” post-it on your door. Even better, add a small stick figure, or funny cartoon, or a motivational message. Change it up regularly. Keep them guessing, keep them stopping by. I did this for awhile, and I had the chair of the department stopping by on purpose to see what I’d written that day. No joke.
- Have $5 gift cards ready for the nearest coffee shop. When you meet someone, say “Hey, I was just going down to spend this gift card at the coffee shop downstairs. Want to come with me and we can chat about _______?”
- Decorate your cubicle. Show a bit of yourself and your personality in your work space, it gives folks something to look at when you have a first meeting.
- Keep your car clean. You never know when an impromptu meeting will turn into coffee or dinner and suddenly you’re carpooling in your car. Seriously, keep it clean. A front seat littered with fast food bags and crusted soda stains is an instant mood killer.
- Attach a basket of chocolates next to your poster during the poster session. And pin copies of your business card all over the board for folks to take as they want.
- Get better business cards. Make them different if you can. If your company has a standard design that you must use, take colored markers to write messages and prompts on your card.
- Ask mentors for suggestions for colleagues with specific skills. Do not ask a blanket request for collaborator suggestions. Come with a specific requisite skill in mind and ask for a list of those individuals who might be interested in working with you, who also have that skill.
- Someone to help a resource issue. For example, the study is too big to go solo, or you need specialist equipment.
- Someone to help a skills issue. For example, the study requires a complementary set of skills and experience.
- Someone to help a data issue. For example, your potential collaborator may have access to data that can expand the parameters of your study or give you a larger population sample
- Hashtags, Twitter Chats, and Social Media. Use this one cautiously, but it is a good way to meet like-minded individuals.
- Join ResearchGate, Google Scholar, PubMed, Mendeley, etc. Another good place to find like-minded people in your field.
- Keep a solid professional branding strategy. If you’re going to use social media as a platform to meet colleagues, use a branding strategy across all platforms. For example, your name or handle should be the same across every app. And your email address should be the same across every app.
- Join an editorial board. If you’re primary goal is to publish, why not join a journal’s editorial board? You many not get accepted on your first try, but I am 100% confident that you’ll find someone to take you in. What a better way to keep onto of literature and meet new friends?
- Send thank you notes and Christmas cards. Every year after your annual review, send a brief ‘just because’ thank you note to at least five of your inside-company and outside-company colleagues and supervisors. Deliver them personally, if you can, and offer to take them out to coffee sometime to catch up.
- Know your strengths and how you can be useful. Practice talking yourself up and know how to communicate what strengths you would bring to a project. Practice your job interview skills, it’s the same elevator speech!
- Travel as much as your budget will allow. Go to every conference, meeting, and even that you possibly can. Use every dollar the department will give you for travel. Travel as cheaply as you can.
- Never be ‘just an attendee.’ Give some sort of presentation at every event. If you get denied, then volunteer to help in some way. You should never ‘just attend’ a conference.
- Learn to ask open-ended questions. Small talk is an art and you should learn to master it. Immediately.
- Two truths and a lie. Another classic corporate icebreaker, but when was the last time a stranger walked up to you with this question? It’s a good, usual, unexpected way to start the conversation.
- Poll the audience during your oral presentation. If you land a platform presentation, engage your audience and do not let a single person leave without your business card. Better yet, write the title of your session on your business cards before handing them out.
- Become a connoisseur, (I know, not easy). Nothing elicits more interest than genuine expertise in your field. If someone is drawn to a topic that you’re knowledgeable about, you’ll move to the top of their list.
- Dress for success. Unfortunately, your first impression is vitally important in making new friends. Clean it up. You’ll feel more confident.
- Work on your storytelling skills. Ask a stranger: “Tell me how your first job helped you get where you are?” Prepare your own quick story to share with small groups or up on stage.
Best of luck finding researcher friends!