Cultivating Thought Partners to Enhance Your Research

Sheila Cherry, PhDcollaboration, research success, scientific writing, strategic visionLeave a Comment

two individuals sitting together at a table with one holding out a lightbulb as if to share an idea

Research is an intellectual pursuit in which discovery arises from asking questions and thinking deeply about where to go next. We often assume that we must have our ideas all worked out before we verbalize them to someone else, especially in the professional setting where we might be concerned about the way our ideas are received (i.e., looking like we don’t know what we’re talking about).

But one of the main themes we hear from the researchers who work with us is that there is tremendous value in having a thought partner to help them clarify their ideas. While we are happy to play this role for our clients as they pursue a new direction—and, for example, they want to write a grant proposal—or wrap up a project and its accompanying scientific manuscript, we believe that there is also great reason to cultivate one’s own thought partners.

cartoon of two heads with the tops flipped up, and little colorful gears aligned between them

What is a thought partner? In simplest terms, a thought partner is someone who give you space to express your thoughts. Sometimes just the act of putting our thoughts into words—whether someone is engaging with the words or not—allows us to begin to see where we come up empty or where we “strike gold”.

But what makes for a good thought partner? The partnership aspect is critical. This means going beyond a one-sided brain dump to create a dialogue that helps an individual drive their thoughts in a productive and clarifying direction. While the shape the dialogue takes may vary based on the preferences of the person seeking clarity, the goal is generally to ask well-timed and thought-provoking questions that open possibilities that the other person might miss. Such questions tend to promote valuable insights that unlock new conceptual directions.

Many researchers likely already have some informal ways in which they share in thought partnership: talking about research ideas over a beverage or meal, or perhaps gauging the validity of new ideas in a seminar or conference presentation. However, these can be rather limited and/or irregular events that don’t become part of one’s overall process for moving ideas to “prime time,” where they are really going to be scrutinized by a wider audience.

We suggest that there is benefit for all involved to establishing more formal thought partnerships that provide supportive engagement for refining ideas as you move them forward.

Cast a wide net

Colleagues who are experts in your sub-field can be invaluable for finding holes in how you’re thinking about a question or problem. This is particularly true when starting something new or trying to frame up your ideas and/or findings for publications, presentations, or funding applications.

Yet, researchers who are a bit outside of your area of expertise often provide a unique perspective precisely because they aren’t so entrenched in the topic. My graduate advisor always called this “knowing just enough to be deadly.” In other words, they speak the language of research, but they don’t have the same knowledge base you do and can therefore ask questions that really reveal where ideas start to fall apart. This is where we tend to fall in our role as consultants—we often lack expertise in our clients’ research niches, but by asking less specific questions like, “will taking that step lead to the outcome you expect?” we help our clients achieve breakthroughs.

Make it mutually beneficial

These days, everyone generally has more to do than hours in the day. This can make it challenging to reach out when we think we’ll be adding another obligation to someone’s calendar. However, if we can make thought partnership a mutually beneficial arrangement—where each partner gets an opportunity to work out their ideas—it will become a fruitful and important form of support for each partner.

a chalk drawing of a handshake that says "win" above each arm

Leaning in to a formal or assigned mentor can be a great route for thought partnership. Sometimes this either isn’t an option (no mentor) or is fraught with concerns that make it challenging (e.g., power dynamics, self-consciousness, or sense of overburdening on the part of the junior person). For these reasons, we suggest building a network of potential thought partners and/or peer mentors for whom there can be mutual benefit.

To do this, think of individuals with whom you have an existing relationship or connection. They might be at a parallel career stage or with whom you don’t think there are any power dynamics at play. They should be people you enjoy speaking with and who would be unlikely to try to dominate your ideas.

Then, ask if they would be willing to have a regular or semi-regular (i.e., perhaps when one of you is writing) meeting with you to provide thought partnership to help work through ideas as you prepare to move them forward. You can do this by having an “even exchange” where you each get maybe 30 min to talk through an idea or challenge, and then switch to the other for 30 min. Or you could focus on one person’s ideas for one whole meeting, and the other’s for the next. But you want to come up with an arrangement that feels like a good time investment for both partners.

Establish your expectations for the partnership and each partner

a photo of an open notebook reading "Establish Ground Rules" with a hand nearby holding a fountain pen

The partners get to set the ground rules and expectations for how the partnership looks and feels, so each of your individual partnerships could vary depending on the given partner. For example, how do you ensure that ideas are received without judgment, or that questions are asked without causing friction? What kinds of questions do you want to be asked? Do you want to go beyond questions and thinking out loud, receiving advice/guidance as well? How should advice be delivered?

Additionally, consider whether you want the thought partner to also be a note-taker. Something we frequently do when providing this space for our clients is to type while they’re talking out their ideas. It allows us to capture moments or phrases of brilliance, highlight points that are underdeveloped, and even gives the researcher a starting point when they’re trying to turn those ideas into a written or verbal product.

Finally, recognize that it is ok to experiment with this concept. If you develop a partnership that doesn’t seem to be working for you, it may be best to suggest changes or to end that partnership entirely (amicably, so that you can continue the overall relationship). It may take a few tries to find an arrangement, or an appropriate partner(s). Just because the first attempt is not a great fit doesn’t mean that it will never work out.

We’d love to know—do you have regular thought partners? What have been your experiences with this, formally or informally? Drop us an email or leave us note on LinkedIn to share your perspective.

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