How to collaborate effectively in physics

Image: Shutterstock/Sergey Niven

As an experimental particle physicist working on one of the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, collaboration is everything in my research.

There are 700 researchers working on the same experiment as me from around Europe and beyond. Working in a team on this scale brings challenges, particularly in keeping people engaged and in giving fair credit for people’s effort, but the experimental physics community tries to get this right and I think that we have developed some good models for other big science projects.

There are two reasons why more senior staff should support junior researchers – we were all early-career researchers once, and we were given the same support and recognition in the early stages of our career. Second, we need to constantly develop early-career researchers within collaborations so that they can take on increasing leadership and continue the work. Our experiments last for years and the LHC is likely to have a 50-year lifespan – there needs to be highly skilled generation following us to ensure that our ambitious plans are realised.

Our early-career researchers take responsibility for their own career development and have organised a mentoring network at CERN, which meets four times a year and runs events themed around the challenges that they face. They have built up a list of senior people who are willing to mentor them and they constantly add to this. I’d encourage other researchers to look for ways to be proactive and creative – this is how you do your science, so apply the same approach to your careers.

The best of your ideas should be pursued with funding. Collaborations are attractive to funders because they will yield much broader outcomes and deliver more than the combined efforts of the individuals involved. Any case for funding should demonstrate that the proposal is novel, that the experimental approach you propose will measure what you need and that you are able to carry out the work – in fact, that you are uniquely positioned to do it. You should also emphasise that the work is timely and will yield important publications. Writing a grant proposal is another collaborative endeavor, even if it is for a fellowship. You must have a network of people with whom you can discuss your idea, develop your case for support and who will review your proposal. I’ve worked on the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Mid-Career Fellowship panel and it is always obvious where people have received support and feedback from their institutions and networks. It makes a huge difference to the quality of their applications.

It’s impossible to separate the science in a collaboration from the people doing it, so it’s important to be able to work with people effectively. At the start of a career it can be difficult to know how people work, so I’d encourage you to talk to people (face-to-face, ideally) who have worked with the person you are interested in about their experiences. They will usually be polite, but will also be honest if there are particular things to be aware of.

CERN is a hugely international community, which brings challenges, particularly in communicating with people in different time zones. We all have to be flexible because communication is so critical to success. Even in a collaboration on the scale of LHC, which involved thousands of researchers, we’ve developed a culture of discussing and developing ideas through consensus and feedback. It can be really slow as ideas are reworked and discussed repeatedly, but it has been critical to the success of the whole project.

Given the importance of communication, I’d encourage all early-career researchers to take up opportunities to engage the public in your work. Everything that helps you to collaborate effectively – being able to stand back from your work, think about different perspectives, be open to new ideas and able to communicate in an open and engaging way – is developed through public engagement. I can’t emphasise enough how valuable these skills are – they will help you write stronger grants, develop better collaborative relationships and working with people who are amazed by your work is a great way to maintain your enthusiasm for your subject.

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Tara Shears

Tara Shears

Tara Shears is a particle physicist and professor of physics at the University of Liverpool. She has spent her career investigating the behaviour of fundamental particles and the forces holding them together, and has worked at experiments at CERN, the European centre for particle physics, and at the Fermilab particle physics facility near Chicago, USA. Tara joined the LHCb experiment at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in 2004, where she works to this day.
Tara Shears

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