The (un)stable equilibrium of collaboration

Take a group of educated, slightly over-worked and potentially stressed individuals and add one condition: they have to communicate with each other and take decisions together. Let us now restrict our observation to a specific category – PhD students, for example.

I remember the summer before the start of my doctoral degree. I had a few worries – most of them of a logistical nature, given that I was moving to a foreign country for the very first time. If someone had asked me how I felt about becoming part of a large research group, international and diverse in its members, I believe I would have candidly answered that this was an aspect I had not considered. Three years later, I wonder how it is possible that I discarded what turned out to be one of the major challenges of a PhD in physics: the daily life in the laboratory – where tasks are distributed and the work load is shared – and the interaction with fellow graduate students as well as supervisors. Could my limited experience explain why I did not expect the precarious harmony of collaboration to be precarious at all?

There are two reasons that come to my mind as to why a PhD is a novel chapter in an academic career: it requires a higher level of responsibility coupled to an increasing degree of independence, and it is possibly the first time that the outcome of a given research project is partially unknown to both the graduate student and their supervisor. As a result, PhD candidates often find themselves in an intrinsically unstable configuration. Collaboration is a broad concept; in practice it can take the form of sharing equipment, analysing data in parallel or writing a scientific paper. The crucial point is that as much as the transition from dependence to independence may naturally occur throughout one’s PhD, successful inter-dependence is a trickier step and requires more effort and awareness.

Someone might remark that these observations are not specific to doctoral programmes. This is true up to a certain extent: academia is widely perceived as a more flexible environment, where one works hard but also has more freedom to manage time and goals. This may sound enticing, but one downside is that flexibility implies a potential lack of definiteness – one is likely to be freer and more doubtful too. Here is thus another challenge: amid personal confusions, the ghost of collaboration demands its toll. And there shall be no rest until it is content.

While the various degrees of successful human interactions in the workplace are often pictured in books, television series and films, their higher education counterpart seems to be poorly advertised. In the academic environment itself, there is a risk for principal investigators to underestimate the relevance of the so-called “soft skills” – a term which is now popular and encompasses a wide range of abilities, from how to establish a fruitful communication with collaborators, peers and the general public to time management.

A man (or woman) warned is half-saved, in the words of a proverb. For instance, should perhaps universities, and particularly research groups who wish to attract graduate students, take into deeper consideration the delicate “human factor” as applied to the collaboration between their members? I suspect that the measures taken to assign more value to both research-specific and soft skills would benefit to everyone.

“Soft skills get little respect but they will make or break your career”, claims communication expert Peggy Klaus. This may be an unforgiving view; however, a PhD should be regarded as a more rounded experience than a few additional years in academia. It should be a path of scientific and personal growth, and as such it should pave the way to one becoming a better person, not just a better researcher.

Soon after drafting this column I noticed that ‘Nature’ published a feature article on what may seem a similar topic (; however, the point of view is different.

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