From the Science Student Council

Playing nice: How to collaborate effectively with colleagues

Navigating differences in work style and authorship.

By Gina Fernandez

Psychology is a collaborative field: as a graduate student, you will certainly find yourself working closely alongside colleagues. This can be a great opportunity to learn from others and expand your skill set, but you may hit a few bumps along the way. Often times, you will encounter differences in personality and work approaches that could hinder your progress on a given project. Here are a few helpful guidelines that can make your future research collaborations go more smoothly.

Team work

It’s always a good idea to get to know your colleagues. If you can find common ground outside of your work, it naturally makes the working relationship a more positive experience. This will also reduce hesitations to ask your colleagues for a favor (e.g. Can you run these patients for me today? May I borrow some supplies?). Knowing your coworkers can also aid in avoiding potential work style conflicts. If person A is laid back and person B has a strict routine, these colleagues might find working with each other to be a challenge. However, if you know ahead of time the dynamics of your group, each member can adjust slightly to accommodate others’ needs. 

Within your group, it is also a good idea to assign someone to a clear leadership role. People sometimes need motivation to get started on a project, and the group leader should be skilled at engaging and motivating the others. Furthermore, a clear division of labor is necessary to avoid conflicts that arise when someone takes on too many responsibilities. One of the greatest perks when working in a group setting is that you don’t have to do it all; assigning a number of tasks to each member can ensure that one person does not carry the entire load. 

Although most members of your team will have an idea regarding the direction of the research plan, it is important to set specific goals and end dates for drafts and completed projects. Clear communication among the group can facilitate tasks, and allows you to plan accordingly when necessary. For example, if a grant proposal needs to be completed by the last day of the month, you and your colleagues should arrange to complete this task while still adhering to your normal work schedule.

People always have opinions, and your work group will be no different. Conflict can be avoided if the group is willing to set aside time to discuss their progress and address any issues that have come up. Another benefit to collaborating is that everyone wants to succeed. Inherent in a team of collaborators is a personal support system that will encourage your progress.

Finally, if you find that a collaboration is not well suited to your needs, even after multiple attempts at “making it work,” you may need to consider excusing yourself from the project. If you force yourself to stay in an unhealthy work relationship, your mental health and work ethic can decline. As a graduate student, you may be worried that leaving research projects can be detrimental to your early career. This is rarely the case: it is better to walk away from your colleagues on congenial terms (so that you can revisit that relationship later down the road) and rest assured that many more research opportunities will present themselves.

Authorship differences

Scientific research is never done on a metaphorical island or lone workbench. Many people contribute their time and resources to the completion of a particular research project. Although you may have worked well together, you may find that you feel underappreciated when it is time to decide authorship order on a manuscript. Most issues can be avoided if there has been clear communication between the researchers and the principal investigator from the beginning of the project. Although these conversations can be somewhat uncomfortable for many, this will help ensure that your “place in line” will  not be a surprise. Research labs typically follow a consistent set of rules for determining authorship, and you should be aware of them. However, as a graduate student, you may feel powerless when an established (or elder) researcher requests first authorship. In this case, communication among your research group is essential. If the dispute cannot be solved within the group, it could be helpful to have an unbiased third party come in and evaluate the situation. Some universities, as well as research groups, have established policies and designated boards to address authorship disputes (view an example online [PDF, 30KB]). Less drastic measures are also highlighted in this previous column.

Most scientists are ready and willing to work together towards common research goals. If you adequately prepare and keep an open mind, you will find that conducting research in a group setting can be rewarding and fun! 

Gina Fernandez is the biopsychology representative on the APA Science Student Council. She is a doctoral candidate in the biopsychology program at George Mason University.

See the APA Science Student Council website for more information about its members and activities.