I work in a department (and a university for that matter) that highly encourages collaborative research between graduate students and faculty. We have a system in place that allows this to happen regularly, so I have been thinking a lot about how I want to engage in research with students. While there seemed like only one model of doing this to me as a graduate student, I’ve come to realize that there is a spectrum that involves different types of work for the faculty member and the student. Depending on the needs, interests, skills, and other demands of those involved, each faculty-student collaboration can look different.
Model 1: The Research Assistant
This approach is most frequently used when a faculty member needs help pushing forward a specific component of research work. Most often this is help with collecting data, transcribing, cleaning data, reformatting or organizing data, coding, or collecting readings for a literature review. Most RA work is limited to that specific task and does not result in co-authorship because the RA has not contributed to analysis or writing. Instead, the RA gets a resume line, a reference (if you agree to it), and experience on the inside of the research process. For exposure to the research process, I orient my RAs to the broader project as part of training so that they understand where the very detailed task that they are completing fits into the broader research project.
Model 2: Student Support on Faculty’s Research
This model overlaps with the RA model above with one key exception. The student is doing similar tasks as an RA on a project designed by the faculty member, but the student is also a co-author on the project because they have either been involved in the life cycle of the project and made significant contributions to the process, OR they were involved in the analysis and writing. The faculty member is usually still first author in these cases, but the RA gets co-authorship.
Model 3: The Collaborative Project
Unlike the prior two models, this approach involves the faculty member and students developing a project together. In this case, the idea could have come from either the student or the faculty member, and they decide to collaborate on design and implementation. Co-authorship in this case would need to be negotiated before the project turns to the writing stages since there may be no clear first author depending on how work was divided for the other aspects of the project. Defining authorship order at that point can also determine who does more work on the written product.
Model 4: Faculty Support on Student’s Research
Finally, faculty may be involved in a student-led research project by giving advice, providing mentorship, and doing writing and editing to the final manuscript. This model goes beyond the involvement a faculty member would have on a student’s thesis or dissertation committee. The faculty member is highly involved with the decisions around data collection and analysis, but the student has primary responsibility for implementation. The writing portion of the project may have a more equal division of labor, but could involve the faculty member writing smaller parts of the manuscript as well. In this model, the student is usually first author due to the sheer volume of work they did to implement the project.
What Model Should You Use?
As a faculty member, there are a couple of things to consider when choosing which model to use for your research projects. First, do you need to work with someone at all to finish the project? For instance, if you have a close to finished project that would take a long time to orient someone to complete, you might choose to handle the remaining task yourself. However, if doing it yourself would mean having to wait 3 months to get to it, you might consider using an RA to get assistance to wrap up the loose ends.
Second, where is the particular project in the process? In general, projects that are not as far along will be easier to incorporate others into through any of these models, but particularly for the models involving collaboration and co-authorship.
Third, what else is on your plate? This is particularly important to consider when taking on new projects. For instance, a graduate student comes to your office with an exciting idea and asks if you want to work with them on it, but you’ve got a backlog of your own work. You could say no, or you could propose to work together as a student-led project with your involvement as providing regular and prescriptive advice and guidance.
Students also have room to initiate one of these models as well. This might be because the student is limiting their involvement by, for example, choosing to do specific RA tasks and not sustain engagement longer-term for a publication. Alternatively, a student could approach a faculty member with a good idea that leads to a faculty support on student’s research model or a collaborative research model project.
However you choose to approach the process, working with students contributes to their training and CVs. It also contributes to faculty’s research productivity and mentoring in the department. Regardless of which model you choose, it can and should be mutually beneficial.