When to Do Collaborative Research? Early—and Often

By Ashton Merck
Ph.D. Candidate in History



Ashton Merck

When should doctoral students in the humanities think about doing collaborative or interdisciplinary research? Would it be best to hold off until you’ve settled on a dissertation topic … or you’ve completed your preliminary exams … or after you submit that first chapter to your adviser … or land a tenure-track job … or should you just forget the whole thing until you get tenure?

Graduate students often feel ambivalent about this question, and that is not entirely because of the cautions offered by faculty mentors. Graduate advisers often recognize the potential value of these experiences, but may worry that such projects could distract or delay your progress on your own research. From their perspective, collaborative research seems like a less straightforward path to success than the traditional channels of academic writing and researching.

Steady progress in a doctoral program and the pursuit of collaborative, interdisciplinary research projects need not be mutually exclusive. For me, work on collaborative projects early in my graduate career offered invaluable insights into my developing interests, my strengths, and my weaknesses, all as I was figuring out my long-term aspirations as a scholar and as a historian. The skills and experiences I gained from these projects will not only help me better navigate postgraduate life, but will positively affect my upcoming dissertation research and writing.

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion featuring humanities graduate students who have done various kinds of collaborative research. I was invited to join this conversation primarily because of my experience on Bass Connections teams, about which I have written in other contexts. As I was preparing my remarks, however, I realized that Bass Connections represented only one facet of the collaborative and interdisciplinary research I have done while at Duke.

I initially looked into Bass Connections when I began to consider my career options outside of tenure-track faculty jobs. I recognized that I needed more experience in leadership and mentorship, and was looking for opportunities that might add variety to the solitary task of archival research that defines most graduate study in history. Bass Connections, a program in which undergraduates, graduate students and faculty work together in interdisciplinary teams to address complex societal problems, seemed like a good fit for these interests and goals.

I have since taken part in two Bass Connections projects while in graduate coursework. The first team examined the social, environmental, and health impacts of hydraulic fracturing in the Bakken shale play of North Dakota; I served in an ad-hoc leadership role to guide the team towards a paper and a final poster presenting our findings. The second team, which is completing its work this spring, has explored the problem of animal waste management in large-scale hog farms in eastern North Carolina. On that team, I helped undergraduates think through the process of developing research questions and crafting an argument, while providing background knowledge and editorial advice.

In addition to my participation on these teams, I have worked on two collaboratively researched oral histories, helped to lead a large group project within a mixed graduate and undergraduate seminar, and co-wrote a successful proposal for a collaboratively written blog with fellow graduate students in the Rethinking Regulation program. Although every project was structured a bit differently and presented its own challenges, each successive experience led to new opportunities and demanded that I develop different types of skills. Through these projects, I have learned how to write and edit collaboratively, how to mentor undergraduates, how to manage my time amid multiple scholarly commitments, how to meet deadlines, and how to organize and disseminate research findings effectively.

Before the panel discussion, I tended to view these projects as disparate aspects of my graduate education—important chiefly for the experience and the discrete skills they cultivated. I was surprised, then, when both of my co-panelists, Mary Caton Lingold and Iara Dundas, offered narratives of their experience that seemed so much more cohesive and straightforward than my own path had been. Lingold was involved in the co-production of a seed grant that ballooned into an edited volume and a digital humanities project, and Dundas joined the Wired! Lab, where she used her art-historical expertise to create digital models of buildings that no longer exist, endeavors that have since generated collaborations with museums as well as more traditional scholarly publications.

As the discussion progressed, however, I recognized how both Mary Caton and Iara had also struggled to find the best way to make sense of their eclectic skillsets and experiences. While they eventually crafted personal narratives that offered a compelling through-line, they, too, described setbacks, shortfalls, and uneven outcomes as part of the process of working on a long-term, complex project. They talked about the difficulties of communicating these experiences to hiring committees, fellow colleagues, and potential collaborators without seeming too unfocused.

More importantly, they were both in the late stages of doctoral education, and it was clear that it had taken years for some of these projects to come to fruition. What if Mary Caton or Iara had been so concerned about whether or not a given project was a clear “fit” for their intended intellectual trajectory that they chose not to pursue it? Even if success was hardly assured at the outset, their long-term engagements with collaborative projects have unequivocally broadened their horizons, expanded their intellectual toolkits, and complemented their dissertation research.

It is never too early—or too late—to consider doing collaborative research as a humanist. But I hear too many of my fellow graduate students talk about doing these kinds of projects “after I defend” or “once I’m out of coursework.” I can certainly testify to the reality that it can be difficult to balance these competing demands on your time—and my cohort-mates can assert that I am not a perfect model of success in all cases. But now that I am on the other side of coursework, I recognize that these experiences have greatly influenced my field preparation and dissertation prospectus, and profoundly shaped my upcoming dissertation research in a way that is much more cohesive than I had previously imagined. Working with non-historians has strengthened my ability to convey the value-added of my perspective as an historian who does archival research, and has led me to appreciate what other disciplines can bring to our understanding of change over time. My intellectual networks and faculty mentors now extend across Duke. In short, collaborative experiences have made me a better independent researcher and have shaped my professional identity as a historian, but it took several projects, and several years, for me to get there.