Wednesday, March 19, 2008


I've been meaning to write about collaborations for a while and hearing this (not too convincing) story on NPR today helped motivate me. Apparently this study, using a slightly modified "prisoner's dilemma" game found that those who cooperate and don't punish slackers do the best.

Throughout my years (I like to sound like I'm an octogenarian), I have enjoyed/endured a number of collaborations. There are all types. There's the "tease" in which someone talks up a project at a conference only to never follow through. Those aren't a big deal since all you've invested is some thought and excitement. One step up is the person who gets you to start something but never follows-up. In my case, I hit an obstacle and didn't have the expertise to push past without some help. Oh well.

There's another, much more involved one that I've mostly put behind me. The lot of us were left scarred and maybe I'll discuss that later.

Of more importance is one I'm in now. There's one person who is a pro at these things. He does the bare minimum to remain involved, but otherwise doesn't even respond. He's always gung ho at the beginning of something to ensure his name gets attached but little follow through. I'm pretty much used to him, though I don't appreciate the dilution (and cost) of his presence. It's hard to leave him off though and he knows just what little is to be done so that it is difficult.

But perhaps the worst of all is this one person who gets much of the credit. Some grad student will ask a pretty standard question and this guy is the first to answer as if the answer springs from some bottomless well of knowledge. Have a problem? This guy will be the first to say he'll look at it. Nevermind, that his look never comes and if it does, with no help. But this guy is a pro. He talks the talk as if he's humble, as if all the underlings deserve the credit, but I (if only "we") know better.

So why do I stay? Of course, because it benefits me. These people can do things I can't or won't. Even if I could, I'm more productive with them than without them. In terms of advice, I would just reiterate that doing well in academic physics is very much about perceptions, interactions, and networking, things I had hoped to avoid by going into academia. Sure there are some who go off and work on their own and become stars, but those are few and there's a large element of luck in it. The safest bet is to go into things aware from the beginning.


Anonymous said...

If I look back at the collaborative work in which I have been involved over the past decade, a good half of it was not really stuff I was interested in. It was just a way to get more papers out. But then I realized with time that the point is not really the papers that one gets to publish (those are only a pleaser for the various bean counters that infest university administrations) , but rather the connections that one makes, that prove very important later on (finding jobs for one's graduate students is the first thing that comes to mind).

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Unknown said...

Although my suggestion comes a month late I will leave it for you anyway. You have just described the basic dynamic every group, job and career with at least 4 people, using the number's within your own story. There are three option's available to you, two of which you have discussed, you can quit, or you can stay, and so far you have opted for the latter. There is one remaining option that can usually adjust one's perspective toward the positive, and it sounds like to me that money doesn't stop you from doing things. You probably need a vacation, something that you would NOT usually select to do, or where to go is the operative consideration for your vacation. Balance is what you must consider, you operate in the harsh world of number's, facts, quota, reaction's, etc. . . . Why not an extravagant cruise, maybe Alaska, or South America, or a trip to Paris, Stuttgart, Belgium, Moscow. . .??? Make sure to visit the great museum's this will help you gain need felt appreciation for people. Go for at least 2 weeks a little party on the trip is okay, but do not spoil where you are with alcohol, afterall you are going to enrich your life's experience's you can get blasted right here at home on the weekend's.