Saturday, February 10, 2007

Plays Well With Others?

Yesterday as I was listening to my colleagues talk about their ideas for the future of our department and our field of science in general, the issue of collaborations within the department and university came up again and again, directly and indirectly. Some people just don't work well with others, whether by choice or not, and some people do. When collaborations don't happen owing to the personalities or interests of the faculty involved, this can have an effect on the department's perceived strengths/weaknesses as well as plans for future hires.

For example, should we hire in a particular field because existing faculty in related fields don't get along with each other, so our department isn't perceived to have a strength in that general field, although we could/should? Some people clearly think that is a good reason to hire someone. Those same people think that subdisciplines in which faculty already get along well are therefore of lower priority for future hires because, as one person put it: "They already have colleagues in the department." I think that reasoning rewards dysfunction and leads to a slippery slope of hiring someone the collaboratively-impaired faculty feel 'comfortable' with. And we know where that can lead.

However, I can relate to the wish for department colleagues with whom one can collaborate. I gave a talk recently in which I had a list of collaborators and students on my title slide, including the names of 2 other professors from my department -- 2 faculty colleagues with whom I worked closely on the research I was discussing. Later, someone who was at the talk said that he was very surprised that I had not listed the name of his old grad school classmate Professor B from my department. This Professor B happens to be the least active researcher and most patronizing colleague in my department, and we have never worked together on any research project. The very thought of it was so bizarre, I almost laughed. It made me realize anew how fortunate I was to have other department colleagues with whom I do work closely. If my only option was Professor B, I'd still have excellent colleagues elsewhere to work with, but day-to-day, academic life wouldn't be as much fun. Having close colleagues in the department creates a more interesting research environment, and is great for students.

So, I can sympathize to some extent, but I also feel that some of these intra-department non-collaborating groups could work harder to get along and be more inclusive in terms of who is involved in large research initiatives. That would benefit everyone. But, failing that, maybe we can try to hire someone with amazing social skills who gets along with everyone and collaborates well with jerks. Maybe we should take out a personal ad.


Anonymous said...

I don't like your suggestion at the end. In my opinion, research should always be given the highest priority in academic recruitment. By my observation, adding in another criterion close to it, although it might be well intended, often just gave opportunities to other powers to play roles there.

Female Science Professor said...

I was being sarcastic.

anon said...

Hey hey hey, I get along well with jerks! The trick is, to have something else that is more important in life to you. Thus, when the jerks put you down, or say something stupid, you can answer with a smile while thinking of something much more important. I don't know if I'd be able to collaborate with jerks though. Especially if they are the student-abusive types.

Another thing is... collaboration at the beginning of your carreer (i.e. Assistant Professor) is seen as a sign of weakness, so I wouldn't want to do it that much and the benifit of a new hire towards inter-departmental collaboration will not be seen for quite a while in light of that. I may be wrong on this though, and it depends on the department.

My P.I. has been burned many times by collaborating with others outside the university. The 'stealing your ideas' type of collaboration that you wrote a post about earlier. So, now we're kind of cautious when anyone comes to visit from our area. There is only one other group in our area in the department and we can't really help each other since we're pursuing two different chemistries. Ther is also not too many others who can help us, or whom we can help (although I have been helping others with specialized equipment that only we have). At this point, to collaborate on something not well defined within our depatment might be a waste of our time (not sure if it would be a waste of time for them if it was going to be time wasted anyways). We've got projects working and not enough people to pursue tangents.

prof j said...

If people within a subfield of a department are not collaborating there is no reason to think they would collaborate with a new faculty member. The new faculty member would be isolated and the subfield would remain disfunctional. The chances of a new young professor succeeding in this environment is reduced. This would be just another example of rewarding failure. It is much better for the newly hired faculty, the department, and the university for the hire to be within a successful area.