Before starting my PhD at the University of Waterloo, I had the expectation that a PhD would involve me picking my own research problem and working independently on the problem. My first semester during the PhD brought me to the realization that I would be working in teams on multiple industry projects, which were supposed to guide me towards identifying a relevant research problem. I was surprised with this approach but wasn’t against the idea of a team-driven PhD, especially since my research area (metal 3D printing) is a relatively new manufacturing technique, about which I had little to no prior knowledge. Having now worked in multiple teams, I have come to find several benefits of a team-driven PhD.

In our research group, industry and scientific research goes hand in hand, since our industry partners list the problems they face in their work, which then helps guide the “big picture” of our research goals.  My research advisor would use industry problems to form specific project teams. In these teams, the common theme is individuals working together – everyone gets assigned to a set of responsibilities with a common goal in mind. Within our common goal for a given project, we are generally given ownership of sub-projects. Ownerships of sub-projects while trying to achieve a common “big picture” objective has helped us develop our leadership and teamwork skills.

Sagar with his lab mates and advisor at Grand River Rocks

From left to right, Sagar Patel, Marc Wang, Lisa Brock, Gitanjali Shanbhag, Issa Rishmawi, Sera Ertay, and our advisor, Mihaela Vlasea at Grand River Rocks.

Here’s a specific example to show how this works in our lab. Industry partners want to be able to 3D print metal parts with better surface quality; our advisor then setup a meeting with the students who could contribute towards this project. Each student was then allocated the responsibility of finding innovative solutions from first principles for each part of the problem. In this instance, for the problem of surface quality, my advisor split us up based on our knowledge in the equations side of the problem, the experimental side of the problem, and the visualizing side of the problem.

For this project, I was working on the equations side of the problem. While reading papers on my allocated area of equations, I occasionally came across papers which were helpful to the other student’s goal of designing experiments. Sharing these papers helped me to engage in fruitful conversations with student allocated for experiments. In about a week, I also realized that there were no good equations available for me to solve this given problem, but was then able to collaborate with the student working on experiments to look for purely experimental methods to solve the surface quality issue. After a couple of weeks, the three of us met with our supervisor where we proposed a plan of action for the experimental and visualization section of the problem. Our supervisor then helped us realize how the three of us could work on the two sections of the project to solve the problem faster. Such a working environment has not only fostered our growth as independent researchers, but also the ability to collaborate with other researchers.

I’ve also had several other benefits from working in teams:

  1. I’ve been able to get assistance and feedback on my ideas for the PhD – which have been helpful for my transition from a PhD student to a PhD candidate
  2. Working in teams has also helped me develop close friendships, similar to what Devon Moriarty mentions, with two lab mates in particular, who started their PhD’s at around the same time as me. These relationships have helped through the occasionally stressful phase in research so far.
  3. Finally, having a common “big picture”, which has the potential to change metal 3D printing for good, keeps us motivated when failed experiments sometime blur out the need for our work.

What would I do if my PhD itself didn’t involve team projects? I would probably use extracurricular activities to gain teamwork experience. Regardless of whether your graduate degree or research already involves team projects, I would encourage you to consider the benefits of teamwork and look for opportunities to engage in team driven projects.

Sagar Patel is a PhD candidate in the additive manufacturing lab in Mechanical & Mechatronics Engineering. Since the blog is about teamwork, Sagar finds it essential to thank the team who helped him with the blog – Nina Psellas and Nasim Shojayi (his colleagues from the Student Success Office), Nicole Westlund Stewart from the Writing and Communication Centre, and Sarah Howard from Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs. Sagar is not very active on social media, but is hoping to develop his website in the future…

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