Monday, December 01, 2008

Old Colleagues

In the course of one's career, colleagues who are collaborators in research -- i.e. not the colleagues who are the same old people who sit around the same old table for faculty meetings year after year -- come and go depending on mutual research interests, opportunities, funding, student advising needs, and so on. There are some colleagues, however, with whom one works (continuously or episodically) for many years. These are the ones I am calling old colleagues -- people with whom one has worked for more than 10-15 years, to pick a semi-arbitrary FSP-centric time-frame.

I pored over the FSP Database and discovered that I have one (1) non-spousal colleague with whom I have collaborated (episodically in an intense way and otherwise in a low-level way) for 20ish years, a few with whom I have collaborated for 15ish years, and colleagues galore with whom I have collaborated for 10 ± 1 years.

Mostly my long-term collaborations have been of the voluntary, mutually beneficial sort. I have not compiled the data in a way that would permit a statistical analysis of the duration and types of all my collaborations over the course of my career. I think the data would be quite scattered (mostly). but perhaps there would be some interesting and/or disturbing trends. In the meantime, I came up with an incomplete and somewhat arbitrary list of types of long-term collaborations.

To work with someone on a decadal time scale might indicate one or more of the following:

1. You are shackled together by necessity (e.g. large research groups using a unique shared facility). You may or may not like each other, and this may or may not matter depending on how many other people are in the group and the compatibility level of your working styles and geographic/disciplinary distance.

2. You like each other and have compatible working styles, so you keep finding projects to work on together just because it's fun and productive to work together. Your research is not transformative owing to the collaboration, but that's OK.

3. You have overlapping but different research expertise, so your collaborations are mutually beneficial. Presumably you also like each other and have compatible working styles. Your collaborative research is all the more awesome because of the collaboration.

4. You do exactly the same research but you are the only two people in the world who care about this research and have bonded over this. (OK, so it is more likely that two people in this situation will hate each other with every molecule of their respective beings and will not work together, but I am going to include this anyway).

5. It's not easy for you to start a new collaboration (for professional or social reasons), so you keep working with the same people over and over.

If this list has anything to do with real life, it suggests that long-term collaborations may be a positive or a negative thing, depending on the situation.

Additions to the list are welcome.


Anonymous said...

6) The funding agencies continue to reward your previous collaboration with new grants and there is no reason to change a good and productive thing.

mudphudder said...

I'm not a fan of incestuous "collaborations" where the same people end up on papers together over and over again just because they trained together, are buddies or just because it's happened before so it'll keep on happening. FSP--I know you know what I am talking about. I've seen it happen before my very eyes. It stinks for everyone else who is not in that kind of setup--but it's one of many sad facts of academia.

Ms.PhD said...

Interesting topic to think about.

What about your past students/postdocs? Do you still collaborate with any of them? Would you consider that in the "shackled together" or "only two people who work on this" type category?

This is one of the things that terrifies me about staying in academia, actually. I usually find that the longer I work with most people, the less I like them. And yet, there is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. You can switch fields, but there's no guarantee of finding the perfect field full of soulmates (unlikely, really).

It's very hard to find those who really share your collaborative style and are fun to work with (and with whom you can invent projects just for the sake of working together for lots of years).

I've been taking a very brute force approach to this, just doing lots of collaborations and trying to bootstrap what I've learned from each one to helping me decide on future collaborations (who, when, how).

But maybe this is just another example where we all reinvent the wheel. Maybe you could blog some advice on how to find and make the most of the best collaborations (and keep them going long-term)?