Finding a good collaborator has some uncanny resemblances to the process of finding a significant other. So be ready to kiss a lot frogs. In the same way you want your significant other to be largely compatible to you, most people also generally desire that the other person has interests and friends outside of your existing orbit. This allows that person to regularly bring new and interesting ideas into the partnership. As such, I always suggest that you look a bit far a field for a collaborator. If you are an engineer, find someone in psychology. If you are a historian, find yourself a statistician. The world is full of interesting people doing amazing things – go out and find one.
Obviously, if you already have a cool idea in mind, you may already know what kind of collaborator you want to find. More times than not, however, cool ideas are spawned by random encounters between bright people. So how do you find this person?
Like finding a date, depending upon the size and nature of your current working environment this may be easier or harder. Savvy institutions regularly have the equivalent of “speed dating” events where academics make very short presentations about their work or skill sets or have mini-round-robin chats. If these are available, definitely partake, because these events offer high exposure with a low time commitment. Equally importantly they bring directly to you a group of researchers who are actively looking for collaborators. Many researchers, once they reach a certain level of maturity already have a group of collaborators with whom they work and may not be particularly receptive to beginning anew.
If such events are not readily available, think about who you already know in your institution and do not be picky. Include technicians and administrators that you may have met during an orientation or at a campus coffee shop. If you can think of someone, call them, invite them to lunch or coffee, ask about their work and tell about yours. You might be pleasantly surprised by what spontaneously emerges.
Another free and easy way to meet people in other disciplines is to attend publically advertised talks at either your institutions or ones nearby. Such opportunities are available on a nearly weekly basis at most universities and are generally open to the public, irrespective of affiliation. University calendars (generally visible on a university’s front webpage) is typically the easiest way to identify your options. Most of us have at least some level of interest outside our field of study, so pick something that sounds intriguing, devote an hour, have some fun, and try to meet someone.
Professional events are excellent forums for finding a collaborator with your own domain. Conferences are good, but workshops, committee meetings, or other events where dialogue is less uni-directional, are even better. The more you attend these kind of events, the more you will develop a network of interesting people, and more importantly of people who know people. If you have a project in mind, talk about it, just make sure not to give away your good idea. Best to talk about the problem and the general class of solutions that might work than to discuss any specific solution-generating strategy. If you are new to the community, offer to give a talk. There is no faster way for people to get to know you.
Finally, of course, there is always the internet, but this again relies upon you knowing the expertise you want your collaborator to have. However, irrespective of the mechanism you undertake to meet a collaborator you have to assess whether this is a good partner for you.
In many ways, finding candidates is the easy part. Assessing their suitability is much harder. Age profile is one consideration. If you find someone very senior, they may not want to do exactly what you want, and you may invest a lot of time without fully achieving the desired results. If you select someone very junior, they may be highly malleable, but need an enormous amount of mentoring, especially with respect to writing the actual grant proposal. Finding a collaborator at your same career level (and age profile) may be the best, because if the collaboration is successful, it is one you can retain over the entirety of your career.
When working with a potential collaborator, it is always best to try something small first. In this way the investment will be low if things do not coalesce. Try co-supervising a student or pursuing a small grant. In this way, one can rapidly determine the level of compatibility. For instance if you do things at the last minute, but your collaborator wants to complete things on a highly regimented schedule, the partnership may be doomed before it starts.
My best words of advice in finding a collaborator are the following “find someone with whom you like spending time and for whom you have a lot of respect”. With that as a basis, there is a very good chance for success.