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A Scientist Warns Against Some Forms Of Collaboration

Yesterday I went to go see my friend, the recently infrequently-mentioned Dr. Buttercup. When I first came to MRU, Dr. Buttercup was gracious enough to allow me to share lab space with him. That, coupled with our mutual love of beer and cake, meant that we saw each other quite frequently. Now that I have moved into other laboratory digs and find myself full of people, I see less of Dr. Buttercup and am the recipient of far less of his wisdom. It’s a shame. I miss that dude.

Then again, as soon as that guy received a grant score that someone told him was “fundable”, he became insufferable. Show off.

But, I digress. I saw Dr. Buttercup yesterday about a different matter and we got to discussing the idea of collaboration. He shared the notion that, as an Assistant Professor, collaboration is one of the funnest things he does. It’s also potentially one of the most dangerous because it robs your time without real reward. Still, brainstorming new experiments is fun and sometimes that additional effort on someone else’s grant pays the bills.

This made me think that the same is true for postdoc-level scientists and made me think about some collaborations I got myself into once upon a time. You see, when you’re a newly-minted, grown-up scientist, you’re on top of the world. Perhaps you start to feel like an expert in something and, perhaps, you’re enthusiastic to show the folks around you how good you are at what you do.

Don’t do it. Generally, you should resist the urge to merge (your data with others).

Personally, I have experienced two types of collaboration. The first type of collaboration I once got myself into was for a large clinical study. I had performed all the techniques they were using in my own previous work, but I have a particular clinical skill and was asked to perform this clinical skill for the patients in the study. Or, should I say, I was volunteered to perform this skill.

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Figure 1: Dr. Isis, hard at work, doing that thing she does.

I agreed, but getting sucked in to this could not have sucked more. I contributed very little intellectually to the study, beyond the initial design related to my area of expertise, and it took a huge amount of time. I did the same thing every time on every patient and I learned very little from the experience. This type of collaboration should be avoided at all cost. What do you get at the end of it? Some second author nonsense-ery that no one really cares about. And a sore wrist and swollen ankles.

One of the other collaborations I found myself involved in once upon a time was with a scientist who does something completely tangential to what I do. He was looking to apply some of the things I do to his line of work and asked me to help build a set-up similar to what I was using. This ended up being a great collaboration. I spent a few meetings helping with the study design. I then spent a couple of days ordering things and setting things up. And then I was asked intermittently to help troubleshoot issues, answer questions, or review data. My role was much more like a consultant. This was a better collaboration, largely because it required minimal daily investment on my part and it was with someone who could teach me something novel. I really benefited from our interaction and he became someone I could discuss my ideas with. So, although collaborations at this professional level should generally be avoided, you might reconsider if 1) the time commitment on your end is minimal and 2) the collaboration has mutual benefit.

But, even then, largely avoid them and keep your eye on the prize. No matter how cool you think your new tricks are and how many people you want to impress.

*This blog post was originally published at On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess*


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