Success in graduate school, whether in course work, research, or teaching does not happen in a vacuum. To succeed, you need to collaborate effectively with your professors, mentors, and colleagues so you can improve your own work and provide helpful feedback to others. Working well together and learning to collaborate in graduate school also prepares you for productive working relationships later in your career. While it may seem like you’d get more done if you were to “go it alone,” there are many benefits to learning to collaborate early in your graduate career. Establishing positive working relationships will provide valuable skills that will pay dividends in any future profession.
Laura B. McGrath of GradHacker writes that working collaboratively taught her to be a better listener, which is a quality valued in faculty members, business leaders, and colleagues in non-profit work. McGrath adds that learning to listen will help you weigh options when considering competing demands. Listening to others also helps you be a better decision maker.
Learning to communicate effectively with advisors and your peers now will equip you with the skills for working productively within an organization. You’ll also collaborate more successfully on scholarship and help build consensus in groups, especially when the members may have strong personalities and conflicting opinions.
There are numerous strategies you can use to develop your collaboration and listening skills. Graduate student instructors can work together to improve their teaching and pool resources. Invite a colleague to observe your class, and ask to sit in on her class. Afterward, discuss what worked well and what can be improved upon. Your colleagues and mentors are also a great resource when you’re unsure of how to approach a topic, or when you want to pool teaching resources, such as handouts. Take advantage of formal or off-the-cuff conversations to share best practices.
Writing, one of those activities that we undertake alone, also improves via collaboration. Get feedback from a peer writing group as you work. This can be beneficial when writing term papers, or when working on a dissertation or an article. Another reader’s perspective can help you find where your argument breaks down or where your language is vague. The reader benefits as well—providing others with feedback heightens his awareness concerning his own writing. Sharing texts and editing early on in the writing process has the added benefit of improving your writing before you share it with an advisor or mentor.
There are some times when your work may feel isolating. To help you feel connected, establish good relationships within your cohort and your mentors. Positive relationships will help you be more productive in graduate school. Peer relationships are vital to your well-being. Research by the Barna Research Group of Glendale, California, found a connection between sharing experience with your peer group and academic success: "Friendships appeared to fuel the search for academic growth by enabling students to learn from the perceptions, experiences, and challenges of their comrades, and they also provided an emotional release from academic intensity" (quoted from Cultivating the Community of Scholars: Peer Relationships for Graduate Students, by Nick Repak).
So, how do you collaborate well with others? The first step to working effectively with anyone is listening. If you aren’t listening, then you aren’t open to having a conversation. When you’re working out details or agreeing to a plan, aid communication by following up with an email. Written documentation gives everyone in the conversation the chance to approve of the details, ask for clarification, and identify any part of the conversation they might remember differently. Later, the email provides a handy reference and can help refresh group memory.
Should conflicts arise, maintain a professional attitude. Repeat any points you aren’t clear about, or any part of the conversation that may seem personal, rather than responding immediately or jumping to conclusions. By repeating what you heard, you give the speaker the opportunity to hear his or her own words and clarify or rephrase. Remember: It may be tempting to ‘win’ an argument, but it’s rarely beneficial. Maintaining strong working relationships with faculty now will help ensure that these colleagues will be valuable working partners and links to more collaborators later in your career.
Professional Service, article published at gradhacker.org April 2012
Working with Faculty of Record, blog entry posted at insidehighered.com August 2013
Peer Relationships for Graduate Students, article published at gradresources.org
A Former Skeptic's Story of Collaboration, blog entry posted at gradhacker.com September 2013
Collaboration, Experimentation, and Solving the World's Problems, blog entry posted at gradhacker.com November 2012
Building Strong Support Networks, blog entry posted at gradhacker.com November 2012