Teamwork in Science


Collaboration is a necessary part of being successful scientists, but team-working skills are not part of our traditional education. As graduate students we spend tons of effort improving skills like statistics, programming, and writing, but we spend very little time improving how we work with others. In this course, whether we like it or not, we have been forced to work in groups and many people have vented their frustration in trying to work with others. As someone how values collaboration, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on how scientists can successfully work in groups.

I have spent most of my life playing team sports and many of the qualities that make a great teammate also make a great collaborator. One of the most valuable skills to have as a teammate is flexibility. Not in the yoga way but in that we have to be able to change the way we interact with different people. In sports, there are some teammates that can only be motivated by being yelled at while other people require a much more gentle approach. The same goes for science, with some collaborators its best to be straightforward and tell them you disagree with their idea, but with many people it is better to use more cautious phrases like “that’s interesting but have you considered this alternative.” The important thing is to know who you’re talking to and be willing to adjust.

Another important skill in a teammate is trust. When playing rugby, I am always relying on teammates for my own physical safety. In many plays, if they don’t do their job, I could easily end up with some broken ribs, but if I don’t trust them and hesitate doing my job, the play wont work and our team can’t score. Once again this has a direct connection to collaborative science. To work efficiently you have trust others to complete their part or come up with their own ideas and if they fail, your project fails. I think trust is a particularly difficult for academics because most of us are perfectionists and we’re scared a single detail wont be they way we intended. The truth is that work is better when multiple brains contribute to it and we must be willing to let go of our obsession with control and trust others.

These team working skills can be extreme difficult to master, but as developing scientists it is important for us to try to improve them. Fortunately, I believe there is one trick that makes working on any team much easier and that is getting to know your collaborators as people. Obviously, you can’t always choose your collaborators, but we should try to treat all collaborators as friends. All of my best teammates have always been my best friends. When your teammates are your friends, it’s much easier to trust them and know how to approach them when you disagree. I think this is one of the reasons the quality of work has dramatically increased as the course progressed. Clearly, a large part of it is due to the technical skills we were taught along the way, but as the course went on everyone became better friends and these friendships fostered better collaborations. I think this course should be lesson to us all that if we treat collaborators as friends we will not only be happier but we will also produce better work.