Sandy Sparks, Learning and Development Consultant at the University of Warwick and Trainer for the British Council Researcher Connect programme, gives her best advice for finding and maintaining a collaboration.
Start with the skills that you can offer
We often start with what we need. But we should think about what we can offer. What challenges do others have, and what can you provide that will help?
Instead of saying 'I have this great research', start with 'what's keeping you awake at night?' Ask your potential collaborator some questions about their challenges, and then suggest ways that you can work together.
Think about how the collaboration will meet your needs
Maybe you're an early-career researcher who wants to be a mid-career researcher. Maybe you want to go into research-led teaching, or policy. When you are clear about your needs, you can be strategic about who you collaborate with, and understand how this collaboration will help you with your next step.
Decide which medium you will use to find a collaborator
You can contact people by phone, through face-to-face networking opportunities or online. This depends on your and the potential collaborator's culture, and how you feel most comfortable communicating.
Keep an up-to-date LinkedIn profile that describes who you are and what you have to offer. There are also academic resources like Research Gate, Google Scholar, Academic Edu and Vitae.ac.uk. Those are useful for finding people who have similar research interests.
It's important to maintain the connections you already have. If you're an early-career researcher, you'll have a supervisor or project leader. Ask them to introduce you to people in similar research areas.
Learn how to introduce yourself
Be prepared with about three-to-six lines, which you can use in writing or when speaking. It should explain who you are, what your area of expertise is and what you've achieved. For example:
Hi, my name is, I currently work at X institution. Over the last X number of years I've done research in X, Y and Z. I'm currently working in X area.
It's important to provide what I call 'hooks'.
I also have an interest in X and Y, and I'm currently looking for a funder/a collaborator/to be invited as a guest speaker....
You can also use this in your LinkedIn profile, or in your email signature.
Understand the culture of the person you're approaching
Do research to understand the country, department, institution, and individual's culture. One way to do this is to talk to people who are already working with that person, institution or department, or in the country.
When you've researched the person you are approaching and their area of interest, an email is a good way to make contact. Use a formal email style in the first instance, and say what you know about their work:
I understand you are researching X, Y and Z.
Then, introduce yourself. Be clear about what you are offering.
When you've established contact, decide on the next steps. Arrange a Skype call, or a 15-minute meeting at a conference that you're both attending.
Set expectations at the beginning of a collaboration
What are the deadlines and response times? What percentage of involvement will everyone have? How will you manage disputes? Will you be named, and will you be credited alphabetically?
Decide those things together, at the beginning. Be honest and explicit, and never assume.
Don't promise more than you can deliver, and be aware of the collaborator's needs, as well as your own.
Try to find a win-win situation
You might be an early- or mid-career researcher, but your more senior collaborator might require an international collaboration for their next project.
Look for ways to extend the collaboration after you have finished working together. Even if the collaboration wasn't as successful as you expected, you might have a colleague who would work better with your collaborator. Introduce them.
Develop a common language with your multidisciplinary team
If you're working in a multidisciplinary team, find out what different words mean. For example, some scientific disciplines use a star rating system, and some don't.
If your team is working remotely, find out whether Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp or another medium of communication will work for everyone. This will also be a good time to decide on a way of transferring information safely and legally.
Take control of your career development
Don't be discouraged if you don't get a response to an email. Try once more, acknowledge that the person is busy, and ask if there is a better time to contact your potential collaborator.
Applications for two Researcher Connect Courses in Kenya on 6-8 February (Nairobi) and 11-13 February (Kisumu) are open until 15 January. This opportunity is for candidates of Kenyan nationality only.
Find out how you can run a Researcher Connect workshop at your higher education institution in your country.