When to Collaborate

Grad students and junior faculty members need to weigh carefully the choices associated with working with an established scholar vs. pursuing their own projects, writes Sue V. Rosser.

May 7, 2012

In August, 1969, I began my first postdoc. Excited to begin a new project that built upon my Ph.D. research but explored a new problem in a different species, I arrived early at the lab, eager to start each day. When about a month into the position, the professor approached me and asked whether I would be willing to help him with the analysis of some data he had collected, I was thrilled. Admitting his ignorance of the methods and lack of theoretical understanding of their bases or implications, he asked me if I would run the analyses of his data using the new statistical methods I had applied in my dissertation and write up the methods and results sections of the data for a paper.

It took me almost six weeks to get the program to run smoothly and complete the analyses. Because I had relatively little experience in writing for publication, it took me almost two weeks to write the methods and results sections, as well as to prepare the tables and charts. After revisions, I had spent much of almost three months of this one year post-doc on these analyses. Although this had interfered substantially with starting my own project, I consoled myself about the time investment by remembering that this would result in an immediate publication with a well-known person in the field, who was also department chair.

Imagine my shock and dismay when I found his name as sole author and my name in the acknowledgments along with that of the secretary who typed the manuscript. I found out when the professor asked me to do a read-through of the final draft before “we” submitted it to the journal. Very upset, I went home and consulted several friends and my support group, composed entirely of women scientists and postdocs. Everyone believed that I needed to confront the professor and ask why he hadn’t listed me as co-author on the paper.

The next day, at our weekly appointment, I asked him whether he had been pleased with my analyses and write-up of the data. He reiterated his gratitude for my help and underlined that he could not have done it without me. Trembling, I then suggested that I was disappointed not to have been listed as a co-author. He seemed amazed, saying that he had just thought of me as “helping” him. When I asked whether the analyses I had provided hadn’t been crucial, he indicated that of course they were, just as was the typing done by his secretary. Noting my look of dismay and displeasure, he added that he would be pleased to add my name as co-author if that would make me happy.

He did add my name, but my pleasure at this needed addition to my nascent curriculum vitae was undercut. The incident had introduced doubts: Why had this happened? Was my contribution really significant? Did I deserve co-authorship? Or had this occurred because I was the first and only woman graduate student and postdoc in this man’s 30-year distinguished career? Was this incident another indicator that I would be treated differently as a scientist and would have to fight constantly not to be seen as a technician or a secretary?

Although incidents as blatant as this seem to arise less frequently today, partly because more women graduate students, postdocs, and faculty are in the system, I hear anecdotes and see subtle remnants of similar behaviors. For example, perhaps the reports that abound of women graduate students who are steered towards different, “less challenging” problems to work on for their dissertation reflect a current, more covert version of a continued belief of a different role for women in science. Does this represent the 21st-century version of the behaviors other women and I experienced in the 1960s and 1970s?

Computer Scientist Olga Smolensky (a pseudonym)

Olga faced similar issues with her adviser. When she moved to the U.S. from Europe, Olga already was married and had a baby. She received her M.S. in computer science and began work on the Ph.D. at the same public institution where her husband obtained a faculty position.

I fought with my adviser, who came from Iran; I was his first Ph.D. student. He attempted to control me, and we disagreed over many issues, including publication of papers. Two years of work at the prestigious private university in a neighboring state, working with a famous researcher on robotics, and accompanying my husband on his sabbatical in California, at the same time that I gave birth to our second child, allowed me to complete my Ph.D. despite my adviser. Ultimately I switched to a different field entirely, which I believe improved my chances of obtaining tenure. I remain happy there.

Computer Scientist Mary Frail (a pseudonym)

Mary strove for independence from her postdoctoral adviser. Mary worked before she entered a junior college to major in computer science. After graduating from a public Southern university, she worked in industry as a programmer and software engineer. She continued to pursue her M.S. and Ph.D. as she followed her husband around the country. A professor at a Research I university gave her space and encouragement while she finished her Ph.D. at another institution. Eager for stability, she continued to work with him as a postdoc.

The receipt of a POWRE award (Professional Opportunities for Women in Research and Education) allowed me to build my own career and distance myself from the faculty member. Under the POWRE grant, I published several articles on my own. These publications gave me the courage to get out of the trap of running his research laboratory and obtain a tenure-track position where I could pursue my own research and build my own reputation.

Why does publication signify independence?

Mary Ann Mason has recounted how publishing a significant book facilitated her conversion from a part-time lecturer to a tenure-track position at the University of California at Berkeley. A good track record in research and publication enables ascendancy through the professorial ranks at one institution. Combined with organizational and interpersonal skills, a good research record opens the door to administrative positions at that same place. Most important, it maintains the option of leaving at any time for a similar or better position.

This flexibility and freedom that emanate from the research productivity and potential marketability can’t be underestimated.They enable saying and doing what one really thinks on important matters, even if others, including superiors, don’t agree. They permit a matching offer for retention to improve salary and conditions at an institution where staying is desirable. Most significantly, they allow leaving a department, college, or institution where the situation has become untenable. Long-term national and international reputation in the profession evolves primarily from research and publication, so developing and maintaining them stand as crucial factors in the career.

Positive Interventions Mentors Can Make to Support Students, Post-docs, and Junior Faculty

1. Create opportunities for students, postdocs and junior faculty to co-author or publish articles, chapters and reviews. Passing on some of the numerous invitations that do little to help the career of an established scientist may provide experience, build confidence, and yield a publication for an emerging scientist.

2. Create opportunities for students, postdocs and junior faculty to speak on panels with you or others at conferences and in other settings where they will receive exposure and critique of their work.

3. Encourage students and postdocs to seek career opportunities that would benefit them and their long-term goals, even when losing them would cause a temporary set back in your own research.

Positive Choices and Interventions Women Scientists and Engineers Can Make

1. Request and take up opportunities suggested by your mentor to publish, teach, and speak, even if they arise before you feel you are ready.

2. Persist in research and teaching even when things are not going well. Try to remember the ultimate goal and keep the current difficulties in perspective.



Sue V. Rosser is provost and vice president for academic affairs at San Francisco State University. Her most recent book is Breaking Into the Lab: Engineering Progress for Women in Science (New York University Press).


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