Thursday, December 26, 2019

Collaboration: Competing together is better than competing alone

I’m super excited to now be sharing my thoughts and advice on navigating academia via my monthly Office Hours column in Chemical & Engineering News! I’ll be posting unedited versions of my columns on delay here on my blog, and you can catch the best and latest versions (and ask your question!) at my C&EN Office Hours site. As always, comments welcome – these topics impact us all, and we should all be part of the dialogue!

The Boston Marathon is arguably one of the most prestigious and exclusive distance races in the United States. In order to qualify, runners must complete another marathon with a finish time below a specific cutoff. And, making the cutoff still does not guarantee the opportunity to run in Boston – competitors who qualify must still wait and hope that they don’t get bumped out by someone with an even faster time. So, what does this have to do with being a postdoc? The power of competing cooperatively on the job market.

Qualifying for Boston is one of my personal goals, and as an amateur runner, finishing under the qualifying time requires that I run my best race on that day. As you might expect, there are several runners at any given marathon who share the same goal and know that they will have to perform at their best to succeed. What may be surprising is that many of these runners (myself included) choose to race together in pace groups – organized sets of people who are all aiming for a specific finish time and cooperate to stay on track and encourage each other along the way. This might seem counterintuitive, as we’re all in theory competing against each other for a spot at Boston. However, we also recognize that we’re competing against thousands of other runners at every marathon across the US and that working together can help everyone in our small pace group succeed in achieving our goal.

Even if you never try to qualify for the Boston Marathon, as a postdoc you will be venturing into the job market and thinking about some ambitious goals of your own. And, you may be acutely aware that several people around you are competing for those same jobs. When the choice arises whether to compete alone or cooperate with those around you, what do you choose? While the answer to this is personal, it’s important to recognize that while you may be competing against the people closest to you, you are also competing against a much larger group of people at universities around the world. And, similar to the runners who work together to keep pace and encourage each other, there is much to be gained from working together with a small group of people who share your same career goals and ambition level. After all, there will be more than one winner in the competition for jobs, so there is plenty of room for you and your colleagues to all be successful. 

What does this look like on a practical level? That largely depends on where you are and what type of jobs you are aiming for. You may be surrounded by other postdocs who have similar career aspirations, or you may need to look outside of your current institution to find your cohort. You may have a formal group in your department to help bring you together or you may have to take the lead to organize. You might even want to be a part of more than one group. Most importantly, you get to decide what type of resources and help you want to share. Identify the key challenges you are likely to face in your job search and discuss how you can work together to tackle those challenges. In the case of an academic job search, a key challenge may be the “hidden curriculum” of what your job application should look like. Sure, the job ad tells you that you need a cover letter, CV, proposals, and teaching and diversity statements. But, if you can work together with friends to gather and share successful examples and offer constructive feedback on each other’s applications, you’re much more likely to hit the mark. In the case of publishing careers, a key challenge may be the lack of central repositories for job ads, and working together involves setting up an email listserv to share job postings that you find. While your group is likely to start out focused on practical support, as you work together, you may also find yourselves benefiting from mutual encouragement and emotional support as you share stories from your job search process.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that competing cooperatively can give you the best shot at success as you venture into the job market. And, you can apply this concept across all stages of your career. Whether you are a graduate student trying to make it through your qualifying exams or a mid-career faculty member thinking about how to take your research program to the next level, there is little to be lost and much to be gained from joining forces with a group of people who share your same goals. And, the friendships and collaborations that you build now might just continue throughout your career, providing collective success and professional satisfaction!


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  2. Thanks a ton for writing this! I heard a term once in a podcast - Co-opetition combining collaboration and competition