How does one find international collaborators?

When I was a kid my father talked to everyone. He made best friends with random strangers in the checkout line. As a middle schooler I hated it. It was weird, awkward, and completely embarrassing. Couldn’t we just get the groceries and go home?

Fast forward more than a few years later. As a graduate student, I remember being puzzled about how I could find international collaborators for the NSF grant for which I wanted to apply. I ended up sending emails to some researchers in some non-U.S. institutions. It felt awkward. Thankfully a few scholars had pity on me. I didn’t get the grant, but I learned that cold calls weren’t for me.

Now I let the process be more serendipitous, driven by my curiosity about other people and what interests them, rather than exploring potential collaborations. For example, this past summer I spent a few days with a colleague in Cyprus. How did we meet? He was an engineering graduate student at the school where I got my first tenure-track job. I was sitting in the Engineering Building before our orientation meeting and he said hello (likely to avoid working on the dissertation, which we’ve all done). I asked about his research—the de facto first question of all academic conversations–and we started talking, happening upon overlapping interests between our research and professional lives. Three years later I ended up visiting Cyprus where he was working after he finished his Ph.D. so that we could begin putting together a research project that we’d been discussing for a few years. How was I able to afford the visit? I tagged it onto another international trip. Since I was already in Europe, the trip to Cyprus cost me very little extra (plus, now I know that the Center offers some nice mini-grants for exactly such trips).

Certainly I’ve met international colleagues at international conferences; however, many of the connections happened on my “home” turf—in the United States where I work—myself an international import from Canada. (It may be hard to believe but Canada and the United States are different countries). The best collaborations have come when I have not tried to seek collaborations but rather simply expressed interest in other people’s work—and also when people have connected me with other people who could add a different perspective to the work I was doing. In both cases, if the conversation continues, then I propose a project. Not every conversation becomes a collaboration—but on my best days by being open to new people and new perspectives, I leave open the door to such conversations. And if you’re wondering who I am, I’m that person who now makes friends in the grocery line and the conference line—and just wherever the interest strikes me. Thanks Dad.

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Brenda Berkelaar
Assistant Professor | Communication Studies
The University of Texas at Austin

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