Collaboration in Research


Marius Zoican on the advantages of joint graduate papers.

As graduate students, we spend a great deal exchanging thoughts and ideas with each other. Furthermore, completing doctoral coursework is often a team effort. It might seem then surprising that relatively few PhD students choose to start joint projects in graduate school. The forthcoming Lindau Meeting will offer a fantastic networking opportunity for more than 450 young researchers, many of which are graduate students. In the same spirit, I decided to share my experience of writing a paper with Tinbergen Institute colleague Lucy Górnicka.

What are the constraints?

Deciding when to write a paper with a fellow student can be difficult. Professional development objectives change over time. During the first year(s), the input of your supervisor is invaluable: a deep understanding on what makes a good topic, expert technical feedback, advice on writing and style, and the occasional insight into department politics. As research skills mature, so does the need for independent work. Since single authored papers are a more accurate signal of scholarly abilities, most PhDs transition directly from working with senior academics to working alone. However, I believe there is great added value in teaming up with a colleague.

With hundreds of likeminded People from all around the world Meeting at Lindau maybe your next academic partner is among them? Photo: R. Schultes/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

With hundreds of likeminded people from all around the world meeting at Lindau maybe your next research partner is among them? Photo: R. Schultes/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

What are the benefits?

Research improves through detailed discussions. It is easier to understand the pitfalls of an argument when you verbalize it. More often than not, your ideas can be refined or extended. Your co-author will come up with a different way to see the problem. Communicating effectively is a key requirement. Is your argument as clear as possible? Are you open to alternative approaches? The skills required when writing with a colleague subtly differ from your work with the supervisor. Researcher roles become symmetrical. Instead of receiving feedback from a mentor, you need to offer feedback yourself and accept critical responses from a peer. The process itself is truly fulfilling: you develop together as researchers by relating to each other.

Project management skills are almost equally important. I learned a lot from my supervisor about the complex process of writing a joint paper. It was a useful experience to assume more responsibility. Little details really matter. Working together requires keeping a detailed project log to track of ideas and feedback. You need to build a coherent system to organize code files, drafts, and the bibliography. You need to agree on a mutually convenient meeting schedule. You need to research conferences and decide which ones to submit to. All are important collaborative skills for a future academic career.

Joint work can also lead to new ideas. It is easy to become too involved in details when you work alone, and ignore the larger picture. Taking a step back at the end of the project and discussing the relevance of your findings can spark new hypotheses.

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Working collaboratively can enhance not only the research experience but also the results. Photo: C. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

How to start?

There are probably no rules about it. Most ideas do not start in the university office. I and my colleague Lucy reached the topic of current European affairs on a summer Sunday afternoon in Amsterdam. We couldn’t quite agree how the banking union would affect the risk taking behavior of banks. Within half an hour, the seed of the paper was planted. Six months after, we were flying to Sydney to present our results.

I think the first step is to find somebody to share your research interests with and whom you might enjoy working with. The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting is a great place to find like-minded enthusiastic young researchers. Do you have a common view on an interesting economic topic? Do you disagree about a policy? It is probably a good idea to start investigating together.

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