Why does it have to be difficult?

Increasingly I find myself thinking about some of the academic collaborations that cross my path. Are collaborations always good? I used to think so.

When I did my PhD, I collaborated a lot, which established many good relationships and friendships that I know will last for a long time. I loved these collaborations, and as a result, I still collaborate a lot with many former colleagues and friends, many of which have since moved elsewhere. It’s also a nice way to keep in touch. Now, during those days, I worked in a department where people were all very like-minded. Almost everyone focused on plant-mediated interactions. Some more on the belowground perspective, others more aboveground, some worked on the effects of dead plant material and its effects on food webs and functions, the list continues. It was quite a diverse bunch. Yet, we all had one thing in common. Almost all of us worked on interactions with the plant, and most – if not all – were experimentalists. Admittedly, I even pushed some more lab-oriented friends towards doing more experimental work/approaches and that resulted in some nice collaborations too.

Lately, I find myself in a department that is much more scattered in terms of approaches and perspectives. You could of course think that this is awesome, and that this could lead to very complementary skills and perhaps this is true in many cases. However, I don’t find the complimentarity very obvious. As a result, I have found myself feeling quite lonely at times, being one of the very few greenhouse experimentalists in the group. I’m happy that I’m slowly building up a team with members that do love this, so we can all work together and start collaborations that are more obvious. I think some of the skills in our department are so far apart that there will never be a synergy. I think this is fine, by the way, and I still love to have a coffee and have a good conversation with these colleagues. Yet, I have the feeling that there is always a very strong expectation that as a postdoc, you need to collaborate, and write papers with whoever you find yourself sharing your department with. Collaboration for the sake of having a collaboration makes very little sense to me. But I see it happen a lot. Collecting names, just to get the biggest network. I could probably pick five names and collaborate with these five names until I’m 70, have a great time, and have great output, without making my life more difficult than it needs to be. Ironically, this strategy will make your life difficult in the long run. A small circle is not rewarded, no matter how great the quality and quantity of your output is. But can I at least just network with the easy collaborators?

Nope. Science has to be difficult. It is not allowed to take it easy. And I don’t like difficult things. I’m very lazy like that. I am also very good at giving up things that I don’t like. I like being comfortable and to work on (to me) simple projects where I can slowly convince myself that I find all the pieces needed to solve the puzzle. Start at the edges, than slowly fill in the gaps. Sometimes I can work on two similar puzzles at once. That works for me. But lately I feel like I’m doing many very different puzzles, blindfolded, whilst also doing sudokus and Swedish crosswords. (and boy, do I hate sudokus) I’m slowly starting to believe that not all collaborations are good, or necessary.

By the way; If someone can explain to me why I should be able to find a collaboration match with everyone, open my eyes, because I cannot see it.

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

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