One recently promoted PI and another more senior who both started leading large multi-site studies early in their careers shared their best advice on networking and collaborating at a recent Vanderbilt event for early career researchers.

Digna Velez Edwards, PhD
Associate Professor, Obstetrics & Gynecology

Put yourself out there and find your flock.

Plot out a five-year plan. What does it look like? What do you need to get there?

  • A vision for your future, both personal and professional, helps you determine next steps
  • Knowing areas where you have room to grow helps you achieve your goals
  • Figure out your resource needs and get them met

As a new investigator, building a national and international reputation means stepping out of your comfort zone:

  • Invite yourself to social opportunities
  • Don’t be alone at a conference
  • Send emails to potential collaborators you have never met (and meet them!)
  • Give seminars to groups of potential collaborators

Capitalize on national meetings to network and build collaborations.

Figure out a way to market yourself to potential collaborators:

  • Business cards
  • Social media
  • Blogs
  • Seminars

Use your mentors’ networks:

  • Your mentors have connections that can help you get started
  • Mentors can also act as a sounding board for potential collaborations (ask them what they think and whether they have worked with a potential collaborator before you agree to work with someone)

Lorraine Ware, MD
Professor, Medicine and Pathology, Microbiology & Immunology

Building your network:

  • Go to talks outside your department
  • Give talks outside your department
    • Common disease mechanisms cut across specialties
  • Meet with visiting professors
  • Be a visiting professor
  • Attend a national meeting that is outside your comfort zone, especially small meetings
  • Volunteer for grant reviews
  • Volunteer for committees in regional and national professional societies
  • Talk to your NIH program officers

Entering into scientific collaborations:

Collaboration is like a garden. Get your tools.

  • Ask first:
    • Will this collaboration advance my science? My career?
    • Are there risks in this collaboration?
    • What is the track record of this collaborator?
  • Establish authorship up front
  • Insist on data transfer and material transfer agreements
  • Make sure IRB approval is in place before beginning the project
  • Establish goals and timelines up front and maintain open communication
  • Keep up your end of the agreement
  • Keep your mentor in the loop!
  • Collaborations are like gardens. You plant a lot of seeds, but not all of them grow. Some don’t sprout, or some sprout and die, while others flourish

Bottom line:

  • Put yourself out there
  • Serendipity—be open to it

The presenters also answered several questions from the audience.

What do you think of NIH workshops as a way to network?

Workshops can be very helpful because you get to interact with your program officer, potential reviewers, and NIH leadership, which makes you known to them.  You get invited to these workshops because of your research, but those putting them on often get invitee lists from program officers.  Talk to yours, and you’re a familiar name that’s more likely to get on the list.

How do I write a collaboration into my first R01?

When writing your first R01, only propose collaborations you have already done work with (or at least collaborations with people you know pretty well), not new ones.  Reviewers will be more convinced you can make the collaboration work if you have evidence it’s worked before.  This is somewhat field-dependent; your mileage may vary.

How do you protect yourself in collaborations?

Before you start, ask people you know who’ve worked with a potential collaborator what that person or group is like.  As the collaboration goes on, details of who will do something or who can use a particular piece of data can get murky–document who will do what in an email to your collaborators at the beginning of things and update if plans change.  Always have transfer agreements.  What data/specimens/other items relevant to your work will your collaborators get?  What will they do with it/them?  What happens to it/them after they’re done?

How do you unravel an unproductive collaboration?

Remember not to make enemies, because typically fields and subfields aren’t that big—you’ll be seeing these people for the rest of your career, and they’ll know a lot of the same people you do. End the collaboration on a positive note by first wrapping up any work that was leading to a paper or other product, then saying you’ve decided to focus on other projects or areas of research.

How do you network at conferences and meetings?

A great way to network is to go to smaller conferences.  In addition to big meetings like AAAS, AHA, or APHA, try a Keystone, Gordon, or FASEB conference, where attendees number in the hundreds rather than the thousands. For many of these smaller conferences, you can suggest topics and organize the meeting yourself, which can be a lot of work but also very rewarding. Another way to broaden your network is to branch out—go to a conference about the pathway you study, but not in your organ or disease, for example.

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