Thursday, March 25, 2010

How to Stand Out in a Large Collaboration

Collaborations in astronomy seem to be getting larger and larger. The quantity and quality of data needed to push the boundaries of our science are becoming ever greater, and many of us find ourselves part of projects that have dozens of colleagues from all over the globe. This makes sense for the health of the project: we can combine specialists at every wavelength and experts on every science subtopic and theorists with every type of technique at their disposal and create massive onslaughts against the challenges and issues of our field. These types of collaborations can be exciting and enriching, but how do you stay involved in such projects as a young female scientist, say at the postdoc level, without becoming lost in the pack?

In some senses, large projects allow postdocs to truly shine. The postdocs are likely to be the ones closest to the data, first in the design and construction of the observations, and later reducing, troubleshooting and analyzing before sending it on for use by the greater team. Or as theorists, the postdocs are likely to be the ones testing the boundaries of the simulations or code and making sense of the initial output. As such, the opportunities for individual contact with many members of the team are great, increasing chances for collaboration. As the first to see the new results, the postdocs also have the chance at brand new discoveries or at formulating new science ideas, carving out space for their own interests piqued by the dataset. But there is also the risk that data reduction, analysis, or other team duties might result in a loss of time for conducting science and writing papers. Being acknowledged for those duties is important, but being seen as a productive member of the team in terms of science is even more important for continuing on in the field, for future jobs, and so on.

As a member of two relatively new large teams, I've been scouting about for ideas on exactly this topic: how to be a productive, cooperative member of a team, good at 'pitching in', while still maintaining a great publishing record and contributing to the science goals.

Here's the advice I've received so far, and I would be glad for anyone to add (or subtract!) from these.

- Don't be afraid to email the team.
We are all deluged with too much email, and we might hesitate to send something that goes to all the members of a project at once. But this can be important for gaining the respect of one's scientific ideas. For example, if a draft of a paper is circulated to the team, minor comments can be sent to the first author directly, but large changes or challenges to the science should be sent to everyone for open discussion. Likewise, announcements of data releases, availability, changes, etc., should be sent to all directly by you (assuming your team doesn't have another already agreed upon way of doing this such as an email newsletter).

- Seek out those in other large collaborations.
Talk to scientists at your level or slightly your senior who have been on one or more large collaborations, particularly those who may have a role in their project that is similar to your own. Organization and management styles differ drastically between projects, but they have good advice and experiences to relate, especially with regards to managing time between service work and science work.

- Don't take on too much.
Make sure you understand your role in the project with regards to the 'guts' - data reduction, catalog creating, etc. - at the onset. Don't volunteer for more and more of this over the lifetime of the project - be respectful and protective of your own time. Be willing to offer to exchange an older duty if asked to take on a new one, or stress that a new duty will require a new, later deadline. If additional tasks are absolutely necessary, it is perfectly reasonable to request more resources (money for salary, computers, etc.) in exchange for your increased input.

- Speak up.
It's easy to let our more senior colleagues discuss science ideas, but they are looking for input for everyone. Jot down ideas at team meetings as you have them and find the opportunity to discuss them either in the formal meeting or in the less formal times like coffee breaks. Don't take the backseat (easier said than done, I realize) and don't assume you belong there.

- Get paid.
If you don't feel you are getting adequate credit for work done, speak with the PI. Explain how you feel you have contributed and ask for a re-evaluation. One postdoc I spoke to said that I should consider myself like a kind of contractor - the team has contracted with you to put in the work and the payment is credit in the form of authorship. Make sure you get paid!

Those are just a few ideas I heard, and I'm sure there are many more. A mentor recently said to me - "Men are competitive, and women are cooperative" - and it was his opinion that women are more likely to fall into this 'trap' of doing more service work on a team rather than concentrating on publishing results. My guess is that there is, as always, a large span of personalities in both genders that cover competitive, cooperative, and everything in between, but I thought it was an interesting point that at least women might be perceived in this way.

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