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Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. During her free time she writes about microbiology-related topics at and on Twitter @KDShives.

I once had a prominent scientist tell me that “it is better to share a cake with others than to eat a cookie alone in the corner” in regards to academic collaboration, and it has stuck with me ever since. Sure, we all did some mandatory group work in undergrad, but that was completely different from a truly professional academic collaboration. In many cases you might not know what your collaborator looks like as everything takes place online, but don’t let this perceived distance fool you. Effective collaborations are some of the most beneficial activities you can engage in, especially early in your career.

Why should graduate students look for collaborative projects? Good collaborations are excellent, high-quality networking experiences. For many academics, business-style networking where you collect as many contacts and business cards as possible is not really the norm. With all of the hours spent working in the lab, teaching students, and writing on top of that many grad students don’t have the extra energy to attend networking events (and who can blame us really?). This is where collaborations really shine. They provide the opportunity to interact professionally with distant researchers in similar, but distinctly separate  fields. It gives you an opportunity to show your work to members of your field and help spread your name among established professionals. Which brings us to the second point.

Collaborative projects can get your name out faster than toiling alone. Think about it: another lab needs you to do a small project to finish a figure for publication because you are familiar with the system they need. That contribution gets your name on the author list and can be very helpful for students with thinner publication histories to start building a solid curriculum vitae.

Collaborative projects make efficient use of resources. The US government sequester and subsequent shutdown of 2013 moved the ability to make the most of limited resources to the forefront of academic minds. In many cases it is now cheaper to collaborate on research projects than to try to do everything under the roof of your own lab. Anyone who has had to troubleshoot highly technical assays knows just how much time and resources you can lose when getting a new system to work. So if you see another group using a particular approach that you need to utilize, don’t hesitate to contact them to start working on a defined project.

So how do you make sure that you get the most out of an academic collaboration? Follow a few basic guidelines and enjoy the benefits of sharing the cake:

Communication is key. From the first moment to the final submission of your work, communicating openly with collaborators is extremely important for defining shared goals and establishing professional trust. Always make it a point to keep collaborators up to date if there are setbacks, unexpected results, or changes to the approaches used to generate data.

Clear and defined goals are a must. When setting up the initial collaboration, define what the project is and is not. What kind of research will be done? What preliminary data or literature is this work based upon? Know what assays/endpoints/analysis you need to do beforehand, and working with others will be much easier.

Report the negative data. This may seem obvious, but if experiments are not working be sure to let your collaborators know. They may have information and experience that is valuable for troubleshooting issues that are new to you but quite familiar to them. It may even be possible that your particular negative data still provides valuable information, so share it openly with collaborators so that you can re-focus and move forward on the project with any necessary new approaches.

Don’t be afraid to initiate collaborations either. If you see someone doing interesting work that would also advance your research, get in contact with them. The worst thing that could happen is that they don’t want or have the time for a collaborative project. In either case, you’ve still made a valuable connection for the future as this person now knows that you are interested in and respect their work.

In Conclusion: Take advantage of collaborative projects when they present themselves. They can be great opportunities to do new and interesting research, get published, and network in a highly professional manner.

Have any you worked on collaborative projects for thesis-related work? If so, please share your experiences and tips in the comments section below!

[Image by Flickr user Sean MacEntee used under creative commons licensing.]