Perspectives, opinions and debates: a recommendation guide for joint projects

Pranav S. Kulkarni
19 Nov ’20

Hello readers! It has been more than a year since I started studying for my PhD. I am working on a joint project between the Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and the Utrecht University (UU). This situation provides me with an unconventional perspective to comment on joint PhD projects between two different research disciplines from two Dutch institutes. Fortunately for me, my team members from both the universities have worked closely together before but nevertheless, it is a different position to be in. So, let me share some of my views and experiences in this regard.

1. Tale of two disciplines

My PhD project is a joint endeavor between Business Economics Group at WUR and Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at UU. Essentially, this is a collaboration between applied social sciences and applied population health science disciplines. So, more often than not, I find myself asking “Am I a social scientist or a health scientist?”. Whereas, the social science part of my project involves use of economic theory and operational research tools involving optimization, the health science part deals with epidemiological and observational data exploration. The outcome of the composite of these two outlooks is a great population based research track in statistical and mathematical work. So, no matter what the answer is to the above question, I find myself enjoying this unique collaboration quite immensely.

2. With joint projects comes joint resources

In my experience, one of the most fundamental advantages of working on such a project is that I have resources at my disposal from two mega-institutions. I have two libraries, two offices, two groups of colleagues and researchers that I can appeal to for help. Moreover, I enjoy the possibility of undertaking a wide range of PhD courses from both the universities. This situation also affords me a chance to compare and choose between facilities from both universities. I get more chances to attend talks, guest lectures, discussions, etc. I have two groups of PhD colleagues as well. But, sometimes, other responsibilities are also doubled such as double administrative duties and double form-filling, double emails and double schedule and calendar management. For example, I have to undergo two annual evaluations, have to present the same work in front of two (markedly different) audiences and keep up with work being done in two groups.

3. Spooky action at a distance

Sometimes I feel, it is quite astonishing how good the two research groups collaborate. There are a few projects that are similar to mine but not quite the same. I feel that both groups are like ‘entangled’ particles and evolve together, one project at a time. Mostly when a new joint project is proposed, it grows organically based on the individual and group expertise of the people involved in it. Each project is like an individual embedded in a network of research groups. I recently had  a chance to attend an online symposium where researchers and professors from both universities (WUR and UU) could be seen discussing and working together firsthand. More broadly though, most of Dutch universities work in close cooperation with each other as well as with universities globally. This global and foresighted perspective seems to make Dutch universities such competent systems. Not only does it seem to increase the diversity of opinions but also seem to help the institute grow and thrive as multi-cultural entities. But I guess, there is no ‘spooky’ action involved though! 

4.Synergy before debate

So far, I have come to realize that most of the discussions and strategizing between my team and I gravitate towards finding synergies between opinions and interests rather than debates. Like anyone working in collaborative projects, I am wary of clash of egos but so far, resolution of differences is swift and very efficient without leading to unproductive compromises. It is not always easy to floor one’s opinion but in my case, I think the supervisorial team is aware and conscious of this and we work together. There is a healthy environment for everyone to state their own ideas. This has given me the opportunity to learn how to negotiate and express myself clearly in the midst of various opinions and agendas.

5. Compartmentalization

In day-to-day work, there is a clear compartmentalization where I am not impeded by constantly asking for everybody’s thoughts on something. I ask for help where and when needed and work independently where I can. Although this is true of most PhD projects, joint projects such as mine make it easier to have more independence. For example, I make many analytical decisions on my own regarding specific methodology or techniques that can be implemented. Whereas, defining the objective of implementing these methods is a joint endeavour. Of course, it is my duty to see that everyone is kept apprised of the situation but there is no micro-management involved. Personally for me, this creates a great working environment.

6. Split in time

I also try to divide my working schedule between the two groups as it helps build bonds in both the places and connect with diverse expertise. I rather enjoy the company of my PhD colleagues from both the groups and it makes me feel very lucky to have such a big work family. Of course, sometimes, there are clashes in schedule. For example, I have to make a choice between which annual PhD congress to attend when they fall on the same day. It can also happen that one of my supervisors from one university has to attend a meeting in their office and then rush to the other university for my meeting. Sometimes, scheduling these joint meetings needs to be done very well in advance to avoid conflicts in the agenda.

7. Coronatimes and #wfh

Recently, we have all been affected by the constant danger of Covid-19 and its consequences on our work. Although based on the guidelines of RIVM and the government, there are some differences in the policies of both universities about working in the office. This can increase the pressure on scheduling even more. In my case, this has driven me to work from home almost exclusively whereas some of my other colleagues can go to their office at least intermittently.

In summary, after a year of working on a joint project, I have had loads of opportunities to learn and to grow while thriving in a rich, collaborative environment. As more and more projects are being interdisciplinary and versatile, if you find yourself in such a situation, I would suggest that you should take up this position as a great opportunity and as a healthy challenge.

Do you want to read more articles by Pranav Kulkarni? See his other blog posts 7 Tips for prospective expat PhD studentsFive great tips to start publishing as an undergraduateHow to become a PhD student and First steps in the PhD program

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