I am a PhD student seeking to collaborate with PhD students and/or professors from other departments, for the first time: I wonder how to start. In particular:

  1. If I already have some specific research questions in mind (which I will use for my dissertation research), is it important to ensure that the research lab is a reasonable match to my specific research goals? For example, if my field is natural language processing and I am specifically interested in doing a research in Transformer language models, should I ensure that the potential research lab for collaboration is also heavily into Transformer research? or can I try contacting any natural language processing labs in general, even if the lab's subarea of research is not a great match to my research goals?

  2. My main supervisor is open to the idea of collaboration. To make the collaboration happen, can I just contact the individual researcher/PhD student whom I am interested in working with? or should I first contact the professor who is leading the lab that the researcher/PhD student belongs to?

  3. Should my main supervisor contact the research group on my behalf, instead of me approaching them?

  4. If I collaborate with a research lab in different department, does this automatically mean that I will formally be a member of that research lab and have the professor who is leading the lab as my co-supervisor?

  5. Is it okay for PhD students to collaborate with research labs from different university (assuming that my main supervisor is okay with this)?


2 Answers 2


Yes, go for it. It sounds like a great idea.

Regarding your formal status with the other labs you collaborate with, as a grad student you could be considered more appropriately as an "intern" for them, which is not in the usual sense of the word, in terms of responsibilities, but I've seen the term used a lot in academia for researchers collaborating at other labs.


It sounds like you've already given quite some thought to what the content and direction of this collaboration would be. Good for you! But while I think it's good to have a plan in your head, you really don't need to have all of the specifics thought out entirely.

IMHO, establishing a professional research collaborations is a bit like professional dating. You need to test the waters, see what the other party is like, whether they are open to sharing, whether they have the same attitude towards research as you do, whether they really have the expertise you need, and, as in real life, whether there's that little piece of magic that ensures that you understand each other and like to collaborate with that other person. The last bit can make or break a collaboration.

As for first contact: Ask your supervisor how they prefer to go about it. And ask yourself what you prefer. Sometimes it helps if your PI sends out the first e-mail to the other student's PI. In either case it is super important to have both in the loop (at the start and keep updated throughout) because out of enthusiasm ideas and reagents and tools will be shared and maybe there are rules or regulations or MTAs in place that only the PIs know about.

As to how it develops and what the formal structures will be (co-authorships etc.) it's good to discuss that early on (though not necessarily in the first meeting) - although you cannot set these things in stone because things will change as a project progresses, but at least make sure expectations are clear on both ends.

But first: get talking, test the waters, don't force the other party to commit to something in the first meeting, give them time to think it through and do the same from your end (in your enthusiasm don't promise something you may later regret).

I think it is super important to be open and sharing in research, but it is still business...

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