What do about requests for collaboration

Nov 10 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

Dr Isis speaks the truth. Collaborators are a tricky thing, especially for newer/untenured scientists.

You do need to be careful. You do need to make sure that the BSD's or other malevolent life forms do not suck you dry and leave you covered with spots. When a senior person, where you are, asks to you "to collaborate",  first get the details. What are you being asked to do? Do not take their word that its just a "bagatelle" and "you can do this in your sleep". Think carefully and ask yourself: how much time? what if it doesn't work? who's paying for supplies, who's doing the stats, etc. Likely you have some marvelous skill (that's why they hired you). I was first trained in maths and stats, and was always getting asked to "just do this little bit". It took a while to sort through and figure out what I could do easily (ie 1-2 hours for a middle authorship) vs. things that were an on going quagmire.

Be equally leery of the "could your tech just run this sample?" request. Remember you are paying for that tech/asst/whatever out of your precious seed money, or starter grant. You need to be investing in yourself and your future. Do not be fooled that "helping" is going to make a difference at tenure time. If your tech has some spare time, maybe ok. But then, what's your tech doing with spare time anyway? Figure out something to keep 'em busy. Sometimes throwing a sample in a New Shiny Glittering piece of equipment is easy. The results come printed out nicely. Its very sexy and everyone is happy. That's great.

Also, ask about the outcome/product/final stuff. Who writes the paper? What's authorship going to look like. Remember, there is lots of time to do favors once you are tenured. This is very hard. It makes you sound ungrateful for the attention of the BSD. It makes you sound greedy, and grubbing and all sorts of nasty things. But! in the end it is your CV that is evaluated for tenure.

If you decide to say no, it can be tricky. You need to be honest, but not insulting to BSD. Things that you can say:

I'm sorry but I am just getting my lab going, and I am not sure about running that right now

I'm sorry, but I am so focused on analyzing my prelim data for my grant that I can't really do anything else.

I am writing my grant and its a struggle, would you look at my Specific Aims?

My dog eat the software, and the replacement is on backorder.

If you make the turn-down about you and not about their science, it will usually go OK. If it doesn't, go to your ally in the department (you do have one, don't you?) and lay it out. Do not say "you are a greedy micro-dick and I am not going to let your idiocy sink my career". Bad move.

The biggest problem you will have is saying no. Start practicing now.


5 responses so far

  • mytchondria says:

    "I promised my mentoring committee I would run collaborations by them for the first X years to make sure I stay on track. We meet in X months. I will absolutely run this by them." I find that enthusiasm wanes when folks have to wait more than 3 weeks.

    • potnia theron says:

      very good.

    • Established PI says:

      I don't agree with this tack. This leaves an impression that you are not master/mistress of your own fate. Tell them up front, nicely, that this doesn't fit in with your research program. You don't need permission from a mentoring committee.

  • Established PI says:

    Just say no. Remind them that you need to focus your small lab's efforts on papers that will get you grants and tenure. No one will invite you to give a talk based on a coauthored paper, or even five coauthored papers. They will respect you in the end for your laser-like focus (and success).

    I sometimes wonder if some junior PIs are a little too needy and short-circuit their chances for success in exchange for a little immediate gratification and approval. I have literally begged some Assistant Profs. to stop draining the life out of their research programs in exchange for collaborations that give them coauthorships but no real career advancement. There is only so much I can do, but it kills me to see people make this mistake.

  • Ben says:

    Good advice I got when I was junior, and which I pass on to junior PIs: While you're junior, only agree to collaborations that directly advance your interests. There's plenty of time after tenure to help others advance their interests.

    I had a couple good collaborations that advanced my research interests, improved my tenure case with senior author papers, and were also good for the collaborator. So collaborating while junior isn't bad, just be strategic and selective.

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