A walk on the dark side

Aug 10 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers], Etc

Like almost any field mine has many sub-groups, not all of which play nicely together. There are dozens of reasons for the clustering and there doesn't tend to be a large amount of mixing over time. Perhaps the occasional one-off paper or collaboration, but they are few and far between.

As a trainee, I grew up on a certain side of the perverbial fence and continue to work with members of that group on a regular basis. For a variety of reasons, however, I can no longer be quite as active a member with that group and I have struck out on my own to a certain degree. As it were, this did not go unnoticed by others.

I should also mention that I am a fairly social person and have spent more that a few hours at conferences or pubs with a good number of the people in my field, regardless of their group allegiance. I rather like the discussions that occur between the groups, because it is extremely interesting to hear people lay out their arguments in a late-night discussion rather than in print after being sanitized by review. It's also a type of networking that I happen to be good at, for better or for worse.

Given the above, I guess it shouldn't have been that surprising a few months ago when I got a call from the head of a group I have had little 'official' interaction with i the past. I was invited to join a project that is in the early stages, but is quickly gaining steam. As things have moved forward, I now suddenly find myself involved in a least one major and a few minor publications as well as a grant application, which could greatly enhance some of my other efforts. Whereas this is a good thing for my personal advancement, I now clearly have a foot in different projects being driven by very different groups. While this isn't exactly a conflict of interest, it will be interesting to see how my new collaboration is viewed by those who I might consider to be my people.

It's a thorny issue that I am not sure how to navigate other than being completely honest with all parties about my collaborations and intentions. If I tread lightly, I am hoping to benefit from working in both circles without having either of them close me out. Hopefully I am not being naive as to how this will all play out.

15 responses so far

  • Bob O'H says:

    I've always tried not to get caught in a single group. In Helsinki theer were two profs who didn't get on with each other (due to some Mysterious Event in the past). But I managed to get on well with both of them, and neither were arseholes so it worked out OK - I'm now on papers with both of them.

    I think you're doing the right thing by being honest and open about collaborating. Most people in both camps will probably be OK with it, and you should bea ble to spot the ones that are likely to cause a problem.

  • rknop says:

    Good luck. While the competition between the two supernova groups during the days of the discovery of the accelerating Universe was mostly friendly, there was some bad blood and some nasty individual stories in there. There were also some tense moments, and some cases of several months of work that got thrown in on people as they tried to deal with responding to something that the other group had done. And, there was a popular book written by a Harvard professor in one group whose characterization of the other group was, in my opinion, so egregious as to be bordering on the unethical.

  • Dr Becca says:

    You were that kid in high school who was friends with the nerds, the jocks, AND the drama club, weren't you?!

  • Kate says:

    I so hear you on this - I have started a collaboration with someone that, in some ways, I may have formerly thought of as being on the Dark Side. But things are going well and it looks like we may end up making a really interesting contribution to both our fields. I am nervous about how some of my colleagues will take the work when I start publishing, though.

  • Joseph says:

    My gut instinct is that this only works out well if you really are apolitical. I have had some success with this strategy. But it gets extremely bad if you either picks sides or stake out positions strong positions (which, by chance alone, tend to favor one group or the other).

    It's a delicate dance but buidling bridges is worth it. Good luck!

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I tried to get two groups to collaborate, but failed. As it turns out, maybe that was a good thing. There are now two independent studies which come to very similar conclusions; the sort of thing which makes one think we may actually know something. I have published with, and am friends with, both groups.

  • gnuma says:

    I find the insularity stifling and annoying. I say go for it and echo Joseph -- remain highly apolitical, if one group naysays another, then say well, I like this perspective from them and this from you, yada yada, we all have something to contribute. I can't imagine that you would get called to pick sides unless a huge knock-down happened btw prominent members of either group -- this is when you screen your calls and run off to a small pacific island until it blows over. How sad would it be for you not to advance your career in the way that you want to because people can be petty?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I am lucky in that there rifts between these groups are not to the point where people are unfriendly to one another or actively dislike (most) members of the other group. I think mostly the differences are competitive and/or philosophical to a small degree and can be bridged.

    The issue is that I still have to be aware that I need to advance my career through the avenues that seem like the best routes for me now, rather than clinging to situations that were better for me a few years ago. I think this can be done delicately.

  • antipodean says:

    Dr Becca

    Be careful or you'll out PLS's real identity as Ferris Bueller

    The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wasteoids, dweebies, dickheads — they all adore him. They think he's a righteous dude.

    Seriously though, PLS. This sounds like a good problem to have.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    It's a good problem to have, as long as it isn't. If I manage to piss off both groups it'll be awfully lonely in the middle.

  • ecologist says:

    In my experience, "groups" are highly over-rated. You can drive yourself crazy trying to decide what they are and how they work. Do *your* research --- and make it of as high a quality as you possibly can --- and *you* decide what questions are of interest, what approaches are the best way to answer them, and what kind of collaborations lead to highest quality. Do that, and eventually people will look to you as the leader of some kind of group.

  • Hermitage says:

    I've only seen it work when the PI in question buts in overdrive work in being seen as loveable and nonthreatening by both groups involved. Kind of like Big Brother when the house quickly dissolves into 'Old folks' vs 'People whose hotness peaked in HS' and they start trying to light each other on fire but ignore that adorable young lady who kind of just hangs out and makes cupcakes all day*.

    *What, you expected me to make some sort of scientific or high-brown analogy? Hahahahahahahahaha.

  • Hermitage says:

    *puts in overdrive work

    No edit button, noooooooooo

  • antipodean says:

    Then be like Ferris

  • antipodean says:

    Then be like Ferris. Just like Hermitage is suggesting.

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