Should I Join a Team, Build a Team, or Go It Alone?

Academic research is increasingly collaborative across all disciplines.1,2,3,4 Yet being more collaborative does not necessarily increase productivity – certainly not on a per-author basis.5

Thus, as an ECR or PhD student it is a legitimate question to ask – should I join a team, build a team or go it alone?

To be clear I’m not saying don’t be involved in collaborative research. But I am encouraging you to consider your options. Namely; should I build a team, join a team or drift in and out of collaborations?

Firstly, when I say collaboration, I mean some kind of partnership for purpose. The two or more entities involved have their own separate goals. But they come together for a common purpose or project. They might even come together for several. But they have their own separate projects they work on; not to mention different reasons for being in the collaboration itself.

Conversely, working in a team means having the same set of goals. For this project and all projects.

In my mind, it is possible to be part of a research group where you collaborate with some members but would be in a team with others. This model is quite common in (biomedical) science research – but I have seen it work will in humanities, and social science as well. In these cases the group might get a name such as the Smith Group – after the lead researcher. The lead researcher would be responsible for most, if not all, of the grants written and awarded along with the publications – but not necessarily write them on their own. There might be a matching twitter and Instagram account; and maybe even a dedicated website.

Going it alone

– takes courage

and determination

The group might have PhD students, early career researchers (ECRs) and established productive researchers (EPRs) within it. Not to mention research, technical and administrative assistants.

Combinations of the lead researcher and one or more of PhD students, ECRs and EPRs come together in teams focused on a particular theme (see figure below). The members of different teams might collaborate in aspects such as model systems, research approaches or statistical analyses. Or, they could form part of a pipeline – where one team hands data off to another as progress is made.

Figure 1: Research Group with teams (circles) and collaborations (intersections)

Thus, within academic research you could build a team, be part of a team or work on your own. What you do is up to you.

Working on your own and collaborating will allow you to choose your focus area(s). However, in some fields getting grants and publications could be more difficult on your own. Conversely, there is evidence to suggest collaborating can lead to compromise or where we build on our weaknesses rather than our strengths.6 And there are some reports that suggest working in a collaboration can lead to a concept known as social loafing – where individuals put in less than less than 100% effort anticipating other members of the team will lift.7

In most fields, after your PhD – in your research PostDoc as it were – you’ll be a team member or a collaborative lone researcher. Trying to get your own grants, but most likely working on someone else’s.

Moving out from PhD and immediately building a team is hard. There are lots of things to do and to focus on. Yet, all of your training and development as an academic researcher has been about good data collection, good grant and good journal writing. Not to mention being a good presenter of the research you undertake. There’s very little – if anything – focused on building a research team. It is arguable that even researcher training (i.e. beyond your PhD) there is little formal training on building a team or working well within one.

Yet, in many of the STEM disciplines and increasingly in the humanities, arts and social sciences, there is value in operating as a team. There is value in shifting from the lone-wolf style of research to a team-based approach.8

Historically (and unfortunately for those in teams), Nobel Prize winners have tended to produce and undertake more solo research.9,10 This is true before and after doing the work and winning the prize (note this is not a statement relating to the number of people that win the prize as that is limited to three for any prize in any one year).

However, this is not to say Nobel Prize winners does not collaborate, work in teams or have weak networks. On the contrary. The data show they are as collaborative as their matched counterparts11 BUT have much stronger network connections.12 Thus, I would argue they work in teams – rather than simply collaborate.

So – do go you it alone, build a team or join a team?


Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email (Richard.huysmans@ravencg.com.au) or subscribe to the newsletter. He’s on LinkedIn (Dr Richard Huysmans), Twitter (@richardhuysmans), Instagram (@drrichardhuysmans), and Facebook (Beyond Your PhD with Dr Richard Huysmans).


1Crouching Authors, Hidden Pitfalls: Collaboration in Research, Studi di Sociologia, 2018, DOI: 10.26350/000309_000041, https://poseidon01.ssrn.com/delivery.php?ID=492099070121004121114094107071071102096038020065064007072116070005075109067102016073103004116122038058047068002120123092000003041057031008018117013121089114004022021075033006127123117091071115009005081006003099077074079007023067117013099070006118082&EXT=pdf, accessed 5 Aug 2019

2A Bibliometric Study of Authorship and Collaboration Trends Over the Past 30 Years in Four Major Musculoskeletal Science Journals, Calcified Tissue International, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00223-018-0492-3, access 5 Aug 2019

3Comparative Analysis of Bibliometric, Authorship, and Collaboration Trends Over the Past 30-Year Publication History of the Journal of Orthopaedic Trauma and Injury https://journals.lww.com/jorthotrauma/Abstract/2018/08000/Comparative_Analysis_of_Bibliometric,_Authorship,.18.aspx, accessed 5 Aug 2019

4Researchers’ individual publication rate has not increased in a century, PLOS|ONE, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0149504, access 5 Aug 2019

5Researchers’ individual publication rate has not increased in a century, PLOS|ONE, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0149504, access 5 Aug 2019

6The collaboration paradox, 99u, https://99u.adobe.com/articles/27941/the-collaboration-paradox-why-working-together-often-yields-weaker-results, access 5 Aug 2019

7Social Loafing, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_loafing, Accessed 5 Aug 2019,

8Crouching Authors, Hidden Pitfalls: Collaboration in Research, Studi di Sociologia, 2018, DOI: 10.26350/000309_000041, https://poseidon01.ssrn.com/delivery.php?ID=492099070121004121114094107071071102096038020065064007072116070005075109067102016073103004116122038058047068002120123092000003041057031008018117013121089114004022021075033006127123117091071115009005081006003099077074079007023067117013099070006118082&EXT=pdf, accessed 5 Aug 2019

9The emerging trends of Nobel prizes in science, Euroscientist, https://www.euroscientist.com/trends-nobel-prizes/, accessed 5 Aug 2019

10Do Nobel Laureates create prize-winning networks? PLOSE|ONE, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0134164, accessed 5 Aug 2019

11Do Nobel Laureates create prize-winning networks? PLOSE|ONE, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0134164, accessed 5 Aug 2019

12Do Nobel Laureates create prize-winning networks? PLOSE|ONE, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0134164, accessed 5 Aug 2019