We designed a “managing power differentials in collaborations” workshop for students & postdocs, because what you can’t avoid, you navigate.

Scientific collaborations are common, important, complex. A failed collaboration can impede, or even end, a student’s or postdoc’s career.  So, if you only have an hour, what essential skills can you teach students and postdocs to help them manage the difference in power between themselves and a senior scientist in a collaboration? That’s the issue we tackled in a workshop with Women in Life Sciences (WILS).

 What 3 things do students/postdocs need to know?

To address those issues, we’re  focusing on three things:

1. They need a baseline to assess the functionality of their collaboration:
In our workshop, students and postdocs will use a previous or current collaboration to practice assessing the health of current or future collaborations. Participants will pair up and use a checklist modified from tools like the NIH Ombudsmen “Preempting Discord” (in scientific collaborations) checklist to assess their collaboration against this benchmark. Specifically, we’re asking them to determine their level of clarity around the goals, roles, processes, parameters, decision-making and participant values in their collaboration.

2. They need to understand how to proactively manage unequal relationships: 


We’ve repeatedly heard students and postdocs speak of a feeling of helplessness – that there is little they can do when problems arise because “the PI has all the power.” They have no little concept about what steps collaborators with less power take to protect themselves. We’ll apply Raven and French’s organizational theory of power to illustrate why power differentials can derail scientific collaborations for junior members, and participants will brainstorm incremental efforts to strengthen their position in this professional relationship.

3. They need to know appropriate responses when they see a red flag.
We realized there were two issues: 1) students/postdocs who didn’t recognize issues of concern in their collaboration and 2) those who did recognize the issue but had no idea how to respond/reach out professionally for help.

Similar to the Stop, Drop and Roll” campaign when one finds themselves on fire, students and postdocs need to know recognize some common issues in collaborations and know what 2-3 steps they need to take when they are concerned that things are taking a wrong turn.  We’ll use examples to describe common red flags within collaborations, identify resources, (e.g., the Ombuds, the Care Advocate, FSAP, Postdoc Union, Office of Postdoctoral Scholars, etc.), and discuss how to access them skillfully, such as contact information, approach (e.g., how to professionally raise concerns with faculty and staff mentors and allies, specific language, etc.)

This is one program of an entire series OCPD  is rolling out to teach UCSF students and postdocs the professional skills they need to successfully navigate academe as trainees, and later, as faculty.   We’ll let you know how it goes.