Thursday, May 4, 2017

PhD Talk for Academictransfer: How to initiate and build international collaborations

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!


When are growing into a position of becoming an independent scholar, an important element is to start new collaborations. You are no longer expected to work exclusively with your colleagues at your institution or with your former supervisor. You are expected instead to spread your wings and develop new collaborations.

Unless you are planning to shut the door behind you and work in solitude for the rest of your days, it will become necessary to reach out to colleagues worldwide who have skills that are required in certain projects. Initiating international networks and collaborations is also important for your publications: it is generally considered positive if you get the opportunity to publish with colleagues from different institutions.

So how do you initiate and build international collaborations? Do you buy a plane ticket to a colleague whose work you've read, and just barge into his/her office to make your colleague an offer for collaboration that he/she can't refuse? There's no need for such drastic ways, and there are a variety of ways indeed in which you can start working across institutions and across borders. Below, you can find a number of ideas to get started:

1. Reach out to colleagues
The colleagues you’ve met several times at conferences over the past years and had good talks are potential collaborators. If you have a chance to talk to one of your colleagues at a conference, propose to work on a topic together. Don’t be vague, but propose a topic that is of your mutual interest, that combines both your skills. Make sure you’ve read some of the work of your potential collaborator, so that you have a good grasp of what he/she has been working on recently. If you want to start small, propose to write a conference paper on a certain topic first, and then see where the results take you. If the collaboration is pleasant, you can consider to apply for funding for a joint project.

2. Reach out after reading a paper
If you’ve read an interesting paper, go ahead and reach out to the author to ask further questions. If the author proposes an interesting method, you can ask for supplementary material and suggest to implement this method to your results, and develop a publication together. You’d be surprised how often fellow researchers react enthusiastically. Don’t feel disappointed if the author gets back to you making it clear that he/she does not want to share additional thoughts and insights on the topic – if that’s the attitude of this person, you won’t have a good collaboration anyway.

3. Service appointments
An excellent way of starting international collaborations is through service appointments, and in particular through technical committees. As technical committees develop technical documents, you get the opportunity to publish these documents either as committee documents, or by working in smaller task groups. If you are in your early career, don’t let an opportunity slide to work on technical documents (provided that you have the time, and can deliver what you promised). Working in technical committees also gives you an opportunity to interact with colleagues from different institutions directly.

4. Apply for funding with colleagues
If you have a colleague at a different institution with whom you’ve worked previously on a smaller project (eg. a conference paper), or have worked together through a technical committee, and you know your working styles are compatible, you may consider applying for funding together. You can apply for example for a European Union project (depending on where you are based), for which international collaborations are encouraged, or you can apply for special grants that encourage international collaboration (inform in your institution about the possibilities). Working together on a larger project with funding will require some trips back and forth, which will intensify your working relationship.

5. Jointly supervise students
If funding is not an option, but your university offers exchange programs for your students (for example, to go do their bachelor’s thesis at another institution), you can work together by supervising a student jointly. You can propose a topic that is of mutual interest between you and an international colleague, find a student interested in the topic, and then send the student for a few months to your colleague to work there. You can then decide to replace the thesis or project by a jointly written paper, or develop a paper later on from the thesis or project (depending on the requirements of your institution).

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