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My PhD supervisor discourages me from initiating a collaboration with people outside of our group. He never explicitly told me that I could not do it, but I can realize it from his reactions (e.g., digressing the conversation, asking me to wait for now, or suggesting me to talk to someone in the group first) whenever I bring up a discussion about the possibility of external collaboration.

The fact is that my research topic is relatively new and is different from what other people are doing in our group, so none of the group members (including my supervisor) can actually help me, and I have to go all the way through my research on my own.

I was wondering how I can settle this? One time I also tried to discuss this issue via email. I sent him an email saying that I prefer to collaborate with researcher X from university Y for these reasons, but he never replied to me.

Any suggestions are very welcome.

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  • Do you need him to introduce you to someone outside your university or is it "just" about getting approval from him? – user2316602 Feb 20 at 11:07
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    I just want to get approval. – sisaman Feb 20 at 11:20
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    You seem to have got either a secretive-type supervisor, or one who has had bad experience with collaborations (yes, that does exist, do not be mistaken). In the latter case, he may know more than you. If you do not know the community, tread carefully. There are very aggressive communities which do not think much about ripping a research idea from a PhD. There are other, friendlier communities, where it is bad form to "invade" the research idea that a PhD student is just working on. First, understand what is going on before making decisions. Go to conferences/workshops on the topic. – Captain Emacs Feb 20 at 13:07
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    Actually, I already know some postdocs/professors in my fields who also know me well as we had done joint research before during my master's, so they are totally trusted. Maybe I need to clear this notion of trust with my supervisor. – sisaman Feb 20 at 18:48
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    @Prof.SantaClaus I did, but no response. – sisaman Feb 21 at 11:28
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Since you wrote that you are funded by a project, I'd like to mention one possibility, without knowing whether that's really the reason or not.

Project funding, especially for more applied funding schemes (e.g., EU Horizon 2020), typically come with obligations, such as reporting, or having to work on certain problems that were promised to be worked on in the funding proposal. This is possibly a reason for why you are working on a topic that neither your advisor nor other group members can help you with: because it has been promised in the proposal for some reason.

Now as you mention your best bet to get support is by collaborating with externals. Scientifically fruitful collaboration is often quite dynamic: the actual research question addressed may change a bit during the collaboration, and in particular it may move away from what was promised in the proposal. From a scientific point of view, this is how great ideas are developed, but you end up getting results that your advisor (grant holder) does not know how to sell as fulfilling the obligation that comes with the project funding. Also, you may end up getting results that your advisor may be unable to use as a proof of competency for future funding proposals, which is important to maintain the flow of funding. Both of these would be problematic for your advisor, which is why he/she may be unwilling to give up control over what you are doing by letting you collaborate with someone not under his/her control. Also, once a collaboration has been started, if would be problematic for your advisor to ask you to end the collaboration if he/she later gets the impression that the focus of the collaboration is not what he/she needs or wants - at that point your potential collaboration partner already invested time, which has to be respected.

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The answer would depend in part on the kind of collaboration you have in mind. Without recommending a particular course of action, your options might include one or more of the following examples:

  1. Meeting for coffee or other relatively informal discussion to discuss research;
  2. Establishing semi-regular meetings to discuss research ideas;
  3. Agreeing to proofread outlines or proposals for substantive work;
  4. Agreeing to proofread substantive work;
  5. Agreeing to co-author research not directly related to your PhD work;
  6. Agreeing to co-author research that is directly related to your PhD work;
  7. Providing technical assistance or advice specific to your research;
  8. Being named as a member of your advisory panel;
  9. Providing infrastructure or other assistance relevant to your research;
  10. Providing data specific to your research.

An important judgement call for you is deciding which of these you should probably get approval from your advisor for, which you should simply advise your advisor of and which are really none of their business.

In some contexts, for some people it may be appropriate to engage in any or all of these. The answer to this will depend on a lot of things, including your own working style and theirs, and the academic culture in the department, institution and country you are working in.

In most systems PhD candidates are encouraged to consider 1-5, and while it may be good protocol to share things openly with your advisors not everyone would seek approval for this kind of engagement.

6-10 would probably depend on the policies, norms and protocols particular to your institution, discipline and context, noting that some of these may entail formal changes to the administrative arrangements around your candidature while others may not.

I hope that helps! :-)

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