Organizing Collaborative Research Projects: Where Do I Begin?

1 July 2015, 1429 EDT

The following is a guest post by Andrew Yeo at Catholic University of America.

Collaborating with friends, colleagues, and other scholars is a great motivator for research. But if you’re at a small research university with limited institutional resources, the hurdles to do collaborative research beyond co-authoring is higher. Small departments, limited budgets, the absence of relevant research centers/programs, and few ongoing sponsored research activities ultimately makes it harder for junior scholars to learn how to organize larger collaborative research projects.  If this sounds like your dilemma, read on!

Based on my recent (and new) experience organizing two collaborative projects – an interdisciplinary project on (Re)building Trust with faculty at my university, and a Korea Foundation funded project on North Korean Human Rights Discourse and Advocacy with collaborators in Australia, Singapore, and Japan I thought I’d share five insights which might help get the ball rolling on collaboration:

  1. Network. You never know who may become a potential collaborator. One connection may lead to another. A random conversation may open several more doors. Despite some of us never having met in person, the research team on North Korean human rights came together because we contacted or at least knew of each other through our existing networks. None of us imagined during our initial encounter that we would do a project together.
  1. Patience.  There’s usually an opportune time to reach out to other scholars. Sometimes it pays to wait (i.e. when you’re better established in the field with a published book; when you get to know a scholar “naturally” by serving on university or professional committees together). Prior to tenure, I organized a few conference panels and looked into ISA-sponsored workshops hoping they might materialize into something further (like a special journal issue). In retrospect, my APSA and ISA conference panels probably never materialized into anything further because the timing wasn’t right.
  1. Finding a mentor. In my first few years as assistant professor, I wished some senior department colleague would take me under his/her wing and show me the ropes. Eventually, I stopped wishing and sought advice on my own elsewhere. After attending a talk by a senior faculty member in the psychology department whose grant sponsored research overlapped with my own interests, I asked if he’d be interested in getting together for lunch. That lunch turned into the first of many (as well as a great friendship) and his insights and experience on collaboration, grant applying, and cutting through university red tape have been invaluable.
  1. Budgeting.  It actually doesn’t take much money to get people together to talk about an interesting topic. The Re-building Trust project began as three brown bag lunches on campus with a budget of under $150 (basically lunch for 10-12 people three times).  We developed into a small working group over the course of the semester and are now planning a conference for next spring with mostly our own faculty. We requested small pockets of money from different parts of the university and so far everyone has been supportive with funding. School administrators seemed keen on fostering faculty collaboration across departments/schools.
  1. External funding. It pays (literally) to look for outside funding, especially as many universities face budget cuts. Scour grant and foundation websites. Ask other scholars about funding options. You’ll be surprised what’s out there. I received small assistance for my current book project from the Earhart Foundation (which unfortunately just closed down). They had no website, and only communicated by snail mail, but I found out about it looking at someone else’s CV and asking him about it. It also helps to communicate your research ideas with foundation representatives. I was intimidated to do this, but two great mentors who had received funding from the Korea Foundation (KF) in the past put me in touch with KF reps who seemed eager to support our project, and more importantly a younger generation of scholars working on Korea.


I have a few additional points and anecdotes on my blog. Other comments and suggestions are certainly welcome. Happy collaborating!