Developing Productive and Meaningful Collaborative Research Partnerships Within and Outside of Your Institution

By Katie Maki, University of Florida, and Bryn Harris, University of Colorado Denver

For many of us, graduate school was filled with ups and downs – there was the excitement of learning and being engaged in content and ideas about which we were extremely interested and passionate. There was also the hard work, long hours, and days when it seemed like we would never get to the real world of faculty positions. (Rumor has it there may have been times when some referred to the PhD as a “Pretty horrible Decision.”) But, perseverance paid off; you graduated! Now what? 

On my (KM) first day in my first academic job, I was welcomed – I was handed my office keys and shown around, but no one told me how I should actually do my job, especially my research. As an early career scholar, you often have the flexibility to engage in the work you want to do and about which you really care. But, how do you decide where to start? Although scholarship expectations vary across different types of faculty roles and universities, you will likely be expected to engage in some form of scholarship in your position, and it is up to you to determine what and how you do it. Whatever approach to your research you take, don’t try to do it all on your own.

In graduate school, partnerships are often already established and integrated into your research projects but as an early career scholar, you likely will also establish new research partnerships. Most commonly, graduate students are collaborating on research with their advisor and/or mentor, other graduate students, and other faculty in their university. As a result, during graduate school, partnerships typically develop relatively naturally or are inherent to existing systems (e.g., assistantships, coursework). Thus, for many of us, we have not observed the development of new research partnerships or had specific training in this area. Moreover, as a graduate student, you work within a system of research mentorship and support between advisors and students so when graduate students experience difficulties with research, they have other researchers with whom to problem-solve or seek support. As an early career scholar, you need to develop independence in your research. That is, early career scholars often need to demonstrate that they are engaged in their own work. But don’t think of independence as isolation in research. Independence in research includes collaborative research. To develop and maintain a productive, meaningful, and sustainable research agenda, establishing meaningful research partnerships is key.

New Partnerships within A New Institution

As you embark on your new position as an early career scholar, you will likely have opportunities for research at your new institution. There may be colleagues in your program or department who engage in similar or related work with whom you could partner on a project. However, don’t limit yourself to collaborating with faculty in your program or department. There may be researchers within your college or across the university who would be great research collaborators. In fact, collaborating with faculty in other academic departments often brings a unique and different perspective to your work that can enhance your thinking and the project.

When starting at your new institution, take a proactive approach to finding new research partners.

  1. Ask colleagues in your program or department if they know anyone in your college or university who engages in work related to yours. Chances are, they will think of someone, and often, multiple people. Depending on your colleague’s relationship with the other faculty member, you may ask them to reach out to the faculty member to connect the two of you.
  2. Search faculty profiles in your department, college, and university. Read about their work, and read the work, in which faculty at your university are engaged to explore whose work might complement yours.
  3. Reach out to colleagues. Ask them to get coffee or meet to discuss research. Share with your new colleague about the kind of research in which you engage and where you see connections between your work and their work.
  4. Look for research networking opportunities at your university. Some universities host events about research topics, funding opportunities, etc. that could provide opportunities to connect with other researchers at your university.
  5. Some universities create research profiles for faculty that can be searched in various ways. For example, at my university (BH), early career scholars can request searches through the Office of Research Services for faculty within the institution that have been awarded certain types of grants or by research topic area.
  6. Keep in mind that overlapping areas of research isn’t always enough for a successful research partnership. It’s also important that you will be able to effectively (and enjoyably) work with your new colleague.
  7. Be judicious in developing research partnerships and don’t feel the pressure to say yes to every opportunity to collaborate that comes your way. Be proactive to push your research agenda forward, but in the way that best serves you.

Although these suggestions may sound intimidating, we have found that researchers are generally open to talking with colleagues about research, particularly early career scholars. As an example, I, (KM) wanted to apply for an internal competitive university grant that required a multidisciplinary team. To identify potential colleagues for the project, I asked colleagues in my program if they knew anyone focused on my project’s variables of interest. After identifying a colleague within my college, I sent him an email (never having met him before), asking him if he’d be willing to meet to talk about my idea for the grant. He responded quickly with an enthusiastic yes and later signed on to the grant. The grant was funded, we collected initial data, and we submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation. These positive outcomes, and moreover, my new enjoyable collaboration, were well worth the very momentary slight awkwardness of sending a cold email to a new colleague.

Research Partnerships Across Institutions

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, our use of Zoom and other virtual technologies has greatly increased, inspiring cultural changes in higher education that have facilitated easier collaboration across institutions. At the same time, during the pandemic, academics have likely attended fewer in-person conferences and networking events, reducing the opportunity to promote such collaborations. Initiation and successful collaboration with scholars across institutions requires intentionality, follow-through, and collaborative purpose. 

Sargent and Waters (2004) further described successful collaboration across institutions as needing two main components: context and interpersonal collaborative processes. Context refers to the resources, environment, support, and climate while interpersonal collaborative processes refers to communication, trust, and attraction among collaborators. It is important to critically reflect on these components prior to engaging in research partnerships. For example, early career scholars may interpret a strong potential research partner as a colleague with similar research aims while mutual content expertise is one aspect to consider from a wider scope of potential needs. Sargent and Waters (2004) further expanded on the needs for cross-institution collaborations as having three dimensions: (1) objective outcomes (e.g. publications, presentations), (2) subjective outcomes (satisfaction with the collaborative relationship, enhanced self-confidence), and (3) learning from the other collaborators. Early career scholars can seek out and evaluate cross-institution collaborations for these components.

Multiple methods can be employed to initiate cross-institution collaborations. For example, when reading an article of interest, you may consider contacting the author to express your appreciation of their work or pose questions about aspects of the research. Depending on the interaction, you may consider asking them to collaborate in various ways (e.g., meet about a particular challenge where they may have expertise, collaborate on a presentation, propose a more substantial collaborative research project). Early career scholars can also network at conferences in an effort to develop collaboration across institutions. For example, you may consider emailing a potential collaborator to ask them if they can meet following a presentation to discuss a particular topic. It is always helpful for a potential collaborator to know that you are an early career scholar and are seeking particular types of mentorship or collaboration. One of my most successful international collaborations (BH) started with an email from a colleague about a recent article I published. This communication resulted in various collaborative research projects, and most importantly, the work is highly meaningful to both of us.

It is important to note that there are multiple other collaborations that can be pursued (e.g., agencies and organizations, community and school partnerships, professional associations,

foundations), yet are not the focus of this post. If you’re interested in learning more about developing research partnerships with schools and community organizations, read ECF’s post from May 2022.

Final Considerations

One of the most common reasons why collaborative research partners may not be successful is a lack of common understanding regarding the roles and responsibilities of the team. The team should be grounded in an understanding of the motivations for being part of a collaborative effort, the nature and type of the research project, the roles of the individuals, and an evaluation of the collaborative outcomes following the conclusion of the task (Sargent and Waters, 2002). Strong collaborative relationships across institutions must be built on communication and clarity – where all members understand authorship responsibilities. It is possible that the original plans for the research project are not effective, and the team needs to revisit them to improve success. It is also common and should be normalized that collaborative research partnerships across institutions are not always effective. Although early career scholars may interpret these as failed relationships, we encourage you to reframe these experiences as guiding you towards more successful collaborative research experiences in the future.

What has led you to develop strong research partnerships? What advice would you provide to fellow early career scholars?

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