Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate: the ups and downs of broadening study

Posted on Monday 14th April 2014

by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

I write this sitting on a plane from Tokyo. We have just departed Narita airport and I am about to travel backwards in time.

Collaboration: working with others on a joint intellectual venture

Visiting for the Global Human Resource Program conference at Tokyo Metropolitan University, I have enjoyed a one day gathering, three days of sightseeing and two full days of travelling. It was my first visit to Japan. Back in November, on a rainy Sunday dashing between appointments, I received a text from my collaborator at Sheffield Hallam University: Would I like to go to Tokyo? She would need to know by the end of the day. This would not be my first adventure; last September I spent a week in Croatia at the International Conference for the Application of the Mössbauer Effect - again arising from my collaboration on this topic. I texted back: I would like to go to Tokyo.

Mössbauer spectroscopy is a little known technique that accidentally ballooned into half of my research project. Because the community of researchers is so small, there is a thriving international network of Mössbauer spectroscopists. The highlights of these conferences are not confined to exotic travel, but include networking, exposure to a range of research and learning to evaluate your own: creatively, from new perspectives, and flexibly in explanations to colleagues and funding bodies, asking yourself what about it will interest them...? But collaboration starts at home. It's our culture to start with a broad knowledge base and narrow down, gradually cutting out options which at some point or other didn't catch our eye - or did, but were lost to another possibility under the restrictions of timetabling. We don't expand our learning as we get older: polymaths are seen as dabblers and specialism is rewarded. Yet things are changing. The arbitrariness of departmental divisions is better recognised, and we no longer enter a profession for life (necessarily).

I write as if this is a good thing: I believe it is. Whilst collaborative work may not suit every individual or every project, access to collaboration is a highly valuable resource.

Disadvantages

Yes, it has problems: some inherent to its incomplete integration (problems a-c), others independent (problem d).

Disadvantaged areas:
  • Access to support
  • Extra work
  • Recognition
  • Delays

Departments don't like to fund students who don't belong to them, so you need unambiguous departmental links (a). If your focus is divided or unique, your financial and social support networks will also be divided, or possibly non-existent. One undergraduate at Swansea University reported himself unable to study the mooted Gender course because of these conflicts,and so did English and Gender - a much narrower study because of the limitations of overlap. As any undergraduate doing joint honours will know,each subject demands two thirds of your time, so dividing your time and putting in the work is more challenging (b). At Oxford University, a German and Classics degree was a five-year Bachelor's - clearly enough work for a Master's, but not of either subject, and so it was not recognised (c). Even if you can divide your time, multitasking decreases your productivity, so dividing your attention between subjects can be tricky: trips may tear you away from the lab or library and waiting for confirmation from different people retards projects (d). But do remember that when you were in school you probably studied twelve or more subjects at a time - and coped then. This is what I mean by narrowing down.

Advantages

Despite all this, there are great advantages in broadening your work or collaborating.For a start,collaborating allows you to broaden without starting from the beginning by taking advantages of specialist resources. Nowhere is this more true than the sciences, where analytical equipment or specialist knowledge are hard to come by. And frankly, it's silly not to do useful work because you don't have a piece of equipment - far sillier to sink funding into getting it and put the work on hold when a 'rival' university or department already has the kit.

Advantaged areas:
  • Learning short cuts
  • Specialist resources
  • Inspiration
  • Future prospects
  • Travel and networking
  • Communication skills

I have been to Newcastle, Loughborough, Sheffield ...and Met and Mat. Access to these resources will also evoke creativity, start new avenues of thought and make the work more interesting - the real driving force behind it.

You will be able to discover new interests and perhaps get a good idea for what you want to do after your degree. It may involve exciting travel (such as to Met and Mat... or Japan), engage you in networking and develop communication skills.

Myself, I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages - but as I said, the most important thing about collaborative study is not doing it, but having the choice to do it. If you are interested in studying abroad for a short term, look at the ERASMUS programme for undergraduates, or University of Birmingham International Partnerships programme. If you're a postgraduate, set up some alerts on an international conference site filtered for your research area - I have found these useful. Travel grants for UK and international conferences are worth the hunt; in chemistry, look first at the RSC. And good luck!