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Megan Poorman is a PhD student in Biomedical Engineering at Vanderbilt University. You can find her on twitter @meganpoorman or documenting her travels on her website.



As graduate students doing collaborative research, we are often the main point of contact for the group – not just performing the work but managing the day to day interactions as well. Even with the dream team of principal investigators and students assembled, disagreements happen and, if left unchecked, can spiral out of control.


What can you do from the bottom of the totem pole when collaborations go off track? How do you work through disagreements in a professional manner? Is there anything you can do to prevent them in the first place? As a third-year graduate student who has been on both sides of the equation, here is what I wish I knew going in.


Before you begin:

Maybe you’re the new graduate student assigned to this project, or perhaps you’re a few years in and are the main architect. Whatever the situation, getting everyone on the same page upfront can prevent a lot of miscommunication down the line. Even if you were not included in the initial project conception, these strategies can still help you proceed smoothly and earn the respect of your colleagues for being able to see the big picture.


1) Do your homework: Do your best to be up to speed on the project’s scope, any relevant regulations governing the procedures being performed in your work, and the backgrounds and work styles of the people involved. Even though you aren’t the principal investigator the fact of the matter is you are the one who will be most intimately familiar with the details of the day-to-day project. From this perspective, you can offer insight into whether a timeline seems feasible, how many resources an experiment will take, and have an idea of how others in the room might be approaching the same problems. Be respectful to the experts you are working with but don’t be afraid to speak up and contribute when you have something to add. Ultimately, sound observations and ideas will earn your colleagues’ trust and help the project to move forward.


2) Set expectations early: The quickest way for relationships to become tense is when one party expects something different than what is delivered. Communicate effectively what you are planning to do and ask for feedback and input. Getting everyone invested will not only aid in having tangible metrics for progress but also promote an overall group sense of accomplishment.


3) Delineate ways you will communicate: Maybe this is my inner engineer speaking, but I believe that having specific and quantifiable measures helps things run smoothly. Having protocols in place for how often you will meet to discuss the latest data, who will oversee planning the meeting, how to contact everyone, and how on-the-fly experiments will be accommodated into the schedule will go a long way in reducing stress and misunderstanding down the road.


During the project:

Great, you’ve had your planning meeting, and you’re all set to kick off the project. The best thing you can do now, besides good research, is communicate effectively. Apply the same level of care and professionalism here as you would in a full-time job. I’m not saying you must end every email with “Sincerely,” but respectful communication and situational awareness go a long way.


1) Brief your advisor: Your thesis advisor is likely your main point of contact for guidance. It helps to communicate regularly with him/her about progress on the project, any roadblocks that have come up, and what you plan to discuss with the group at the next meeting. This helps your advisor to make informed decisions by having a complete understanding of the state of affairs as well as your individual role in progress.


2) Know your boundaries: Graduate school is a marathon, not a sprint. Decide and communicate up front what you are responsible for and how far outside your lane you are willing to go to aid your collaborator in their duties. There will of course be times where you must step in and help each other out to meet a common goal, but be careful to not overstep your bounds. A polite friendship with your colleagues can make the project enjoyable and productive, but hurt feelings are a sure-fire way to breed distrust.


If the worst happens:

Even with the best laid plans, experiments will go wrong and tempers will start to flare. The first step is to try to resolve the situation on your own – teamwork is a lot of learning how to work effectively with people who think differently from you.


1) Be professional: Even if you’re at your wits end and feel you have been wronged, remain calm. You can only reach a mutual resolution through communication, which is difficult to do if you let your anger get the best of you. Try to understand where the other person is coming from and empathize. This doesn’t mean you should ignore the cause of the problem, but save that anger for venting to a few trusted friends.


2) Document everything: Keep a good lab notebook of experiments, dates, and outcomes so that you can back up disagreements with facts. This includes keeping track of protocol and regulation compliance. If there are disagreements that were particularly hectic, make notes in a personal notebook of exactly what the issue was, ways you tried to resolve it, and the facts surrounding the interaction.


3) Elevate the situation appropriately: Assuming you’ve tried and failed to resolve the conflict yourself, the next step is to make your advisor aware of the situation. Remain professional and refer to your notes to fill him/her in on what happened, how the disagreement has been handled so far, and suggest appropriate paths forward. Having your advisor in the loop is key to maintaining the trust you’ve built and allows them to approach the problem fully informed. If you feel the issues go further than your advisor, continue up the chain of command with the same professionalism and clarity, documenting the whole way.


4) Enact a self-care regimen: Dealing with these tough situations is extremely stressful and you will need an outlet for venting your frustrations. Find a fun way to relax - meditate, hang out with friends, or burn off some excess energy. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. You may think your problem is small in the grand scheme of things, but these sorts of situations hang around longer than you might think and can grow into something larger like the grad school blues if they are left unchecked. Your school likely has people trained to deal with exactly these situations, reach out to them.


Collaborations can be tough to manage, particularly as a graduate student, but can also be extremely rewarding when done right. Have you ever been in a collaboration gone wrong? What do you wish you had known going in?


[Image by Flickr user Urs Steiner and used under Creative Commons licensing.]


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