Life, death and collaboration: How to find research friends

Found zen (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

For the first years of my academic life, I only ever published as a sole author. I worked on projects as a sole chief investigator and, for the most part, started projects by myself. Coming from the humanities of the time, this was not that unusual.

In my later years as an academic, almost everything I wrote or worked on was not as a lone researcher. I co-wrote, co-edited, was part of project teams and event committees.

In academia these days, the collaboration factor is huge. Perhaps even de rigueur. Track-records with no history of working with others are viewed with a suspicion. Heads of Schools and grant assessors may well wonder: is it because you don’t work with others, or because you can’t work with others?

While some ‘collaborations’ can be nightmares that you try to get over and done with as quickly as possible (therefore, aren’t collaborations in the holistic sense…), research collaborations can be the absolute best things in your academic life.

And, because you’re not an Emperor penguin, you don’t have to ‘mate for life’ with one collaborator. You can work with various groups and individuals off and on throughout your career, finding more along the way. Train that creative sensibility to find ways to work with people you respect and like; it will make your working life a happy place.

As with many things in life, the best way for these things to happen is organically. A forced research relationship makes the baby sloths cry.

With this in mind, then, what’s the best way to find a collaborator? First, remind yourself about what academic networking can mean.

Then, check out my top strategies for finding good collaborators:

1. The key is to be open to opportunity.

I can guarantee that you won’t find collaborators if you don’t get out and about in your field. This doesn’t mean having to hold bake-sales so you can attend the peak international conferences every year, not in this day and age. Being out and about encompasses the traditional academic circuits of presenting at conferences and seminars, contributing to professional associations and reading groups, and being on institutional committees. It could also mean cultivating a focused blog, Twitter stream, and Facebook page: a triumvirate of online academic identity that has worked extremely well for me (academically for my research network, as well as for this professional blog). It doesn’t have to be this particular combination of social media, of course. When done well, this virtual research identity and online conversation can surmount the tyranny of distance (I’m based in Australia, remember) and lead to tangible working connections and fresh opportunities.

That said, I’m also a big champion of getting out of your office and doing the fun work of cultivating research-potential among your connections. That would be going out for coffee (or similar) regularly. There may be no immediate collaborative project that you’d be working on, but chatting with smart and interesting people is an automatic win, no? One of the most successful coffee chats I’ve ever had resulted in a book contract with a good university publisher (for my re-jigged PhD), the possibility of being co-editor for a book series, and the cementing of a collaborative relationship that was very fruitful and good fun.

2. Cold-calling is… cold.

Never approach someone out of the blue and ask to work with them, or present a project that you’ve already nutted out and ask if they want in. Some people advocate this approach; I don’t. Don’t just browse university directories and approach other researchers purely to snag their CVs (not as rare an instance as you’d like to think).

First, what’s wrong with you? Do you even know what this person is like to work with? There’s knowing and admiring their work, and there’s working with them on projects and publications and countless edits for journal articles.

My rule for collaborators is that they have to be people I can face the first thing in the morning at ridiculously early breakfast meetings snatched in the midst of a conference you all planned to attend so you could have a meeting about the other stuff you’re working on together.

If I can throw in a dating analogy: don’t commit to dinner, always start with drinks. Approach a potential collaborator with a low-level social investment. After all, if you decide it’s not going to work, or the dynamic just isn’t there, it’s not too hard to walk away. If you’ve jumped straight in and persuaded someone to work with you, then discover they are micro-managers who render you homicidal… well, it could get awkward.

Second, this potential collaborator may not know who the blazes you are, or only know you obliquely. Why would they want to share intellectual space with you without any convincing preamble or reassurances that you’re not a nut-job?

3. The pyramids all started with one block.

The best way I’ve found to ease into a collaboration is to work together on a smaller concern first. Hold off on the three-year, seven-figure, multi-team project. Begin with a conference paper, maybe an event, perhaps a sub-committee project. The only way you’ll get to know whether you can really work with someone is to road-test them. They could be someone you’ve really enjoyed working with, but the “I’ll call yous” and “Let’s do it again sometimes” may not lead to anything substantial. It’s better to have a small-scale fizzle that you have grit your teeth through than something you may have to carry on your CV for a few long years (e.g. funding for a project that doesn’t seem to have produced outcomes – assessors will wonder whether you are an effective researcher if your funded projects don’t appear productive). Through an initial smaller project, you can iron out your work habits with the other person (or people). Do you trust them to follow through when they say they will? Have they got your back if you’re caught up in a crisis? Do you feel they bring equal value to the relationship?


Successfully completing projects with others usually results in a natural high. There have been a number of events I’ve convened where the committee bonded through the trials of late keynote withdrawals, diva antics and bad catering. Some of the best times have been working with colleagues on papers, with the dynamic to-ing and fro-ing of ideas and drafts.

Academic work does entail phases of solo endeavour, but it can be fruitfully balanced with collaborative relationships that feed your intellectual and social soul.

What are your strategies for finding good collaborators?

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

One Response to Life, death and collaboration: How to find research friends

  1. Pingback: People stuff | Pearltrees

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