A PhD is often thought of as a solitary pursuit. What is underestimated is the key role that collaboration plays in the PhD process. In this blog, I will explore how collaboration can enrich a PhD experience, help broaden one’s perspectives, and improve the quality of PhD research.
My PhD project was set up for collaboration from the get-go. The Principal Investigator, Professor Susan Smith, had been granted an HRB Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA), which provided funding for four PhD scholars from a range of backgrounds to research various aspects of multimorbidity. Multimorbidity is defined as two or more chronic conditions in an individual and its estimated prevalence in Ireland among adults aged 50 years or over is 58.5%.1 The four scholars included Louise Foley, a Health Psychologist, Bridget Kiely, a GP and Aisling Croke, a Pharmacist, along with myself. Together, the four of us set up a Public and Patient Involvement (PPI) group with about 9 people who had lived with multimorbidity. Because we divided the tasks involved with organising PPI meetings and maintaining contact, the workload was greatly reduced.
The PPI group was a valuable form of collaboration. Fundamentally, it kept me grounded and in touch with the people affected by the research I was conducting, especially given the fact that I am not a healthcare professional. As well as that, the group shaped our research in a variety of ways; they encouraged us to push back on bureaucratic consent processes, they helped ensure our language and approaches were accessible to the public and they gave us insights about the healthcare system and their experiences of multimorbidity. For example, we learned from the group that the term people living with two or more ongoing health conditions was preferable to Multimorbid patients.
My PhD colleagues were also helpful collaborators. One of the most fruitful collaborations was with Louise Foley. A systematic review is often a key part of a Ph.D. It generally involves trying to gather a reliable and comprehensive set of studies on a specific topic, critically analysing them, and then summarising/analysing the findings of the studies. The gathering process involves reading through the titles and abstracts of many studies. To ensure I did not miss any relevant studies, I needed a second person to independently read the titles and abstracts as well. Louise Foley agreed to do this for me and in return I did the same for her systematic review. This provided the added benefit that we learned a little from the other’s project and were co-authors too.
My PhD was done in conjunction with HIQA, and as part of this, I worked with researchers with a broad range of expertise. I contributed to a qualitative systematic review, led by one of my supervisors Dr. Barbara Clyne, about end-of-life care. This allowed me to learn a lot from a leader in qualitative research which prepared me for the qualitative systematic review I did as part of my PhD. The end-of-life care systematic review contributed to a national clinical guideline. This was very informative, in terms of the policy-making process.
- The previous three paragraphs are a message for PI’s: build collaboration into your applications.
You need to be judicious about who you collaborate with. I had a tendency to jump at every opportunity I got. Be careful about collaborations, as sometimes they can involve a lot of work with very little reward. I have had a few experiences working with senior researchers who were too busy to contribute meaningfully to the project or were not interested in the project. The collaboration ended up involving a lot of work from me without much benefit in the end. To avoid this, try to get advice from people you trust who have worked with the potential collaborator.
Along with formal routes, collaboration also occurred for me from casual conversations with other staff in my department and my SPHeRE cohort. For example, my pursuit of the research I focus on now, examining conflicts of interest and the pharmaceutical industry, grew from a lunchtime conversation with an SPHeRE colleague, who talked about the large influence pharmaceutical and medical device representatives have on healthcare. This interest was thankfully fostered by my very supportive supervisor Prof. Susan Smith. Through a few more casual conversations where I worked (the Department of General Practice in RCSI), I collaborated with two senior colleagues on projects in this area, and I now work as a Post-doctoral researcher with them. You never know where your next idea might come from, so keep chatting with people from different fields and people with different perspectives.
Another opportunity for developing collaborations is at seminars and conferences. At an SPHeRE seminar, I got chatting with Darren O’Rourke, who went on to become a TD. As a TD, he spotted research I had been involved with outlining a lack of transparency around pharmaceutical industry payments to healthcare professionals. He got in touch to discuss the research and then developed legislation to address the issue, which will hopefully be before the Dáil in the not-too-distant future.
Overall, collaboration is vital for a successful and fulfilling PhD. It can open paths that you did not know existed, lead to long-lasting friendships, and make a challenging experience much more manageable. So, seek out spaces for collaboration and the benefits to you will be immeasurable.
- Larkin J, Walsh B, Moriarty F, Clyne B, Harrington P, Smith SM. What is the impact of multimorbidity on out-of-pocket healthcare expenditure among community-dwelling older adults in Ireland? A cross-sectional study. BMJ Open. Sep 1 2022;12(9):e060502. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2021-060502