Yesterday I attended the kick-off briefing/networking meeting for the University’s Opposites Attract Collaboration Challenge. It is an effort by the university to encourage broader cross-disciplinary collaboration, modeled on something that Bristol University have done. The challenge itself is a bit of an experiment, and we’re all feel our way a little bit.

Initially I sat at a table with Daniel and Adam. Adam is an archaeologist, so we didn’t stay together long at the table, as they wanted to mix people from different departments up. But before we join other groups, we worked on Elevator Pitches for our own research, I was very impressed by Adam’s – “Changing Rooms” for Roman Villas he said, with the practiced air of somebody who’d been touting his work around all the museums of the South West (which he had). Daniel was working on European politics, which is a hot topic might now.

Having given each other some feedback on our elevator pitches, and taken away bullet points that each of our listeners had heard us say, we moved to different tables for another challenge. Now I was sat with Anthony, a theoretical physicist, Hang, from the Business School, and Xiaotong from the school of education. First we had to distill the six bullet points that our previous audience had thought our research was about to just two. Then we had work together to propose a collaboration project that address at least one is not both of everyone’s bullet points. Not only that we had to imagine what the output might be: a game; a blog; a poster; a film or podcast; a hands-on display or installation; a live performance; or, an app (or I guess, something else entirely – hovering trampoline shoes was the example they gave from this video).

At first the task seemed impossible. Hang’s interests were about career management and the impact of the choices we make during our working lives. Anthony was working at the most mathematical end of theoretical physics, exploring better mathematical methods to interpret the problem of scale. I’d brought two very simplistic points from my research to the table: digital good and screens bad. Xiaotong was working on a gap analysis of Chinese students expectations of, and the reality of, UK higher education.

But then we had the idea of helping Xiaotong collect data for her project. We talked about the career-planning impacts that might motivate Chinese students to seek UK HE. Just for the purposes of the twenty minutes he had to discuss it, we came up with four examples – Reputation and prestige, experiencing Culture, Global Employability and Money. Then we talked about creating a mini exhibition on careers that had those four motives built into the space in four distinct locations. Rather than (or maybe actually as well as) asking students about their motivations, the exhibition would track their movement around the space, using Anthony’s machine learning algorithms to see which of the four motives they were most interested in, based upon the time they spend lingering in that area of the exhibition.

Admittedly, I feel Anthony was hard-done-by in this proposal. There wasn’t much actual cosmic physics here – he’d sacrificed his research aims, in order to contribute his mathematical expertise. And lets face it the maths wouldn’t even be very hard, not as challenging and exciting as the maths problems he’s already working on. So I think with more time we might have found something for satisfying for him, but the other three of us were pretty pleased that with just twenty minutes discussion, we’d come up with something that might contribute to our own research in different ways.

The intention wasn’t it bring this particular brainstorm to life, just to get us all thinking collaboratively. Though afterwards, Xiaotong indicated she might like to explore it further. So, I wonder if any of these ten reasons to the collaborate that the organisers cribbed from The Collaborative Researcher resource developed by Vitae would be enough to persuade Anthony to join us?


  1. It’s fun! Collaboration gives you opportunities to work with interesting people, on research that delivers a clear benefit, on topic that really engage your enthusiasm and interest.
  2. 2. Funding Most major funding providers are keen to promote collaborative research as a means to answer bigger questions. The skills and knowledge you gain will strengthen your position to apply for future funding.
  3. Improve your research vision Developing close ties with other researchers also gives you a community with whom to discuss you current and future plans. Their feedback and suggestions will help you to enhance or redefine your vision
  4. Boost your CV A group of researchers should produce more results than an individual! With a team of people writing on various aspects on interconnected work, there is a greater chance of adding to your publication list.
  5. Connect with many people Collaborations are a good way to work with many people at once – in a few years you could work with more researchers than you would during an entire career pursuing solo projects.
  6. 6. Improve your judgment Working with new people can be risky, so you’ll need to develop your own strategies for being sure you can trust your co-workers. Once you learn how to spot evidence of integrity and trustworthiness, you’ll be well positioned to find future partners.
  7. Publish more widely Each researcher in a collaboration will want to reach their own audiences, broadening your reach if you are publishing with them. Multi-disciplinary projects are also more likely to publish in high-impact, wide readership journals.
  8. 8. Improve communication and project management skills If you are involved in helping to write a project plan and communication strategy to manage the different partners, you’ll have marketable skills for the future.
  9. 9. Learn to manage and minimise risk By having a Plan B ready and a process for monitoring progress, you are increasing the likelihood of a successful project and will learn how to establish future research in the most effective way.
  10. Develop a niche As a specialist on a project you have a chance to showcase your expertise and develop your reputation in a particular field.

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