Workshop: Scientific Work — Colleagues & Networking

“It is wonderful to work in an environment with a lot of smart people. It challenges you to think and work on a different level. If you play with better players, you learn a lot: perspectives, intellectual arguments, new ways of thinking about things.”
Marissa Mayer, (Ex-)Vice-President of Search Product and User Experience at Google

Science is a social business, not only because your colleagues determine — in the form of peer-review — whether your work gets accepted into the domain of science or not (i.e., gets published or rejected). In many cases, expertise is needed that cannot be acquired by one person alone. While of earlier times ‘great’ people are remembered, today most achievements are made by multiple people working together.

However, there is still the view that a scientist should be this lone wolf, thinking and working only for him-/herself. This is not wrong either — unfortunately, science is also very competitive. Positions are limited and hard fought for — and the person who works with you on the same topic might also be the same person who is competing with you for this position. So, above all else, if possible work with people who complement your expertise. You can profit from each other, yet do not compete for the same positions. The best person to work with is often in the next department, not in your own.

But despite this apparent conflict there are a lot of ways in which you can maximize your (and your colleagues) gain while minimizing the potential conflict.

Cooperation with Colleagues

Even if you are ‘only’ a PhD student, have a look at your colleagues on the same level:

  • Learn from your colleagues and teach them in return: Much of the learning is informal and if someone is already an expert in a method/area you need to acquire, learn from this person. Maintain the balance by sharing your knowledge about areas that are useful for this person.
  • Find people who complement your skills/knowledge: You might not need to acquire some skills/knowledge (e.g., relates to another sub-discipline), but you can work together on a shared paper where both of your areas of expertise and combined.
    Make sure to be clear about the order of authors of that submission. Given that in many disciplines the first author gets most to all of the credit, it should reflect the amount of work contributed. A good solution is to write two papers and switch the order of authors.
    Working together with another young scientist on a paper is very educational. Make sure you inform your supervisor about it.
  • Meet informally: Meet with your colleagues about once a month. Getting something to eat is a good occasion. Make sure it does not become an encounter group where you moan about work, but that you use this opportunity to get up-to-date and perhaps find someone to work on a paper with.

Interdisciplinary Work

Your colleagues might belong to another branch of science. While this makes communication difficult (they might now know what you know and also not know that they don’t know it), interdisciplinary work can be very interesting and stimulating. Your peers who started with you all developed at a similar pace, which makes it hard to see how much you have learned. Working with other disciplines shows you your strengths — and your blind spots.

If you work interdisciplinary make sure that you:

  • Try to see the issue from their perspective: What are their goals and criteria of success? These are often very different in other disciplines and must be openly discussed so that everyone gains from the cooperation.
  • Judge them by their expertise in their discipline: If you judge a computer scientist by the criteria of psychological research, the computer scientist can only fail miserably. What might appear natural for “science” might be confined to your (and related) disciplines, but completely foreign in another discipline. It might appear that your cooperation partner knows less than a second year student in your discipline — and this might very well be the case. But you can bet this person knows more than you will ever know in his/her discipline. It is very easy to be arrogant here and unfortunately, many researcher are. Avoid an egocentric discipline view and be open to their strengths.
  • Clarify the terms/concepts: Miscommunication happens easily because they use the same terms for different things and different terms for the same things. Negotiate how you use certain terms and ensure that this is refreshed frequently. It is very hard to change one’s understanding of terms or have the meaning in another discipline available the whole time.


How do you get to co-operation partners? The term that comes into play here frequently is networking — create and maintain a network of contacts.

To make use of networking/networks:

  • Measure the success of your network by the quantity and quality of work you have achieved with it (and not by the number of contacts): It can allow you to know about and get positions, find people who complement your expertise for shared papers, and much more that will advance your career. It is a means to an end, not something you do for its own sake. It serves your career and it is not about friendship, but about working together successfully.
  • Use weak ties: Use the contacts of your contacts to find interesting fellow scientists.
  • Be generous but not naive: Quid pro quo is the rule to live by here. Make sure you get something of equal worth for your work, time, and effort. Trust, recognition, and respect are crucial here — and go both ways.
  • Develop your expertise in your (sub-)discipline: A network is no replacement for substance — you have to bring something to the table: Your expert knowledge in your (sub-)discipline. Earn a reputation for high quality work, as a specialist in your sub-discipline. It is the best advertisement and payment available.
  • Look for horizontal and vertical contacts: Vertical contacts (above and below your position) and horizontal contacts (same level as you are) are both important. You never know where some valuable information might come from or who can solve a problem you cannot solve.
  • Negotiate critical issues openly: One of the most difficult issues is the order of authors of a paper. Make sure you deal with this early and openly. Best solution is usually to strive for two papers and alternate the order of authors.
  • Trust, but check the chain of data: Given the recent cases of data fabrication (see also these blogs), make sure that the people you work with are trustworthy. If it’s too good to be true (ease of data collection, quality of the data), it might be. A possible way is to check by contacting all people involved in the data collection — after all, if the data is really good you might want to thank them in person.

Getting to know new people

Small Talk is the bane of many ‘serious’ researchers. However, it is often necessary to get to establish preliminary trust to discuss more serious matters. So deal with it. As a scientist you have the advantage that you have a clear goal — find out what the person is doing and whether you can (perhaps in the far future) cooperate with this person. There are a few things you can do to make it easier for all involved:

  • Prepare beforehand: When you visit a conference or a place where you met other scientists (or practitioners), find out as much as possible beforehand. The conference program tells you who attends and the topics they are working on — allowing you to pick and chose and prepare questions based on their prior work.
  • No time limits: While conferences are ‘natural’ places to met other scientists, there really is no time limit to contact other scientists. If you did not manage to talk to this person during the conference, send an eMail afterwards. If it has been years, tell them you remembered them for conference X when topic Y came up.
  • Use social network sites to maintain contact: Social networking sites like LinkedIn, Mendeley [Update: Until it becomes clear how Elsevier treats Mendeley, I no longer recommend using Mendeley (currently looking for another solution).], Xing, or even Facebook and Google+ are very useful to keep in contact. Scientists leave their institutions frequently, so having them as contact at one of these sites will provide you with the current address. Oftentimes you can also make private notes, e.g., when and where you met this person. If you have the resources, you can even use a Farley File to keep track of your contacts, although in most cases it would be an overkill and making more effort than it is worth.
  • Move beyond your circle of colleagues: While colleagues can provide support — esp. during conferences — it might be difficult to met new people if you hang out as a group. So move around. If there is an interesting group, listen in (openly!), show interest and ask questions. You only get to know new people if you talk to them.

Dealing with Interpersonal Problems

Unfortunately, colleagues can also be a source of problems:

  • Avoidable and Accidental problems: In the best case you avoid problems by caring about the relationship and perspective taking. Science is fast-paced, complex, demanding on cognitive and emotional resources — and mistakes happen. Make sure that you talk about the things that bug you to find out whether they weren’t done accidentally or for good reason.
  • Real Problems: If there are real problems, you might want to involve a trusted third party. Many institutions have these people to mediate in conflicts and it makes sense to involve them.
  • Mobbing: It is hard to believe but mobbing also occurs in Academia. If it happens to you, make sure to document it and find eye witnesses. Even professors who are (only) interested in the publication output take a very dim view on mobbing (well, it reduces the publication output). And once you have collected enough evidence go into the legal offensive and swat that blowfly. Make sure you have sufficient support — mobbing quickly drains resources, which are already stressed by the demanding work you do.
    If you observe mobbing, offer assistance to the person who is mobbed. Bullies rely on the silence — i.e., the silent participation — of others. Put it out into the open and take a stand against it. Mobbing poisons the work climate and serves only the bully.
  • Adviser Problems: If the problem is with your adviser — it is possible to change this person. In some cases it is the best you can do — it’s not your or his/her fault, it’s a matter of matching. But make sure that there is no other solution first.


Recommended Literature

  • Jorge Cham’s PhD Comics
    I could have done a whole presentation just by showing PhD Comics — but no-one would have believed me. A lot of these comic strips are — (un)fortunately — true.
  • Pausch, R. (2008). Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams. Carnegie Mellon University. / Last Lecture at Carnegie Mellon University
    Excellent book (and talk!) what you can do — with others — in academia.
  • Sternberg, R. J. (2003). Psychology 101 1/2 The Unspoken Rules for Success in Academia. Washington, DC: APA.
    Very useful, especially if you are the first person from your family to study. It does not only apply to psychology but also to other disciplines as well.

Next up: Choosing a Research Topic

See also:

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  3. Scientific Community #2 — Getting Into the Community the Right Way | ORGANIZING CREATIVITY

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