Research as an international project

As a psychology student you have to face certain barriers, when you have the possibility to do research. Those barriers mostly concern the university you are studying at. If your university does not provide you the opportunity to research in a field of your interest, the chance of working in an international research team on a joint project might be a good option to develop your research skills and discover the world of academia on an international level. If you can find such a team, then you are lucky, because 1) it is great to work together with people from different cultures who are all interested in the same topic and can share their expertise 2) it gives you possibilities to work on aspects of a topic that you could not do within the cultural and methodological framework of just one university.

But the opportunity of an international research team reveals some challenges you will have to face at several critical points throughout your work. In the following post, those challenges are summarized.


Research in the field of international team work (Majchrzak, Malhotra, Stamps & Lipnack, 2004) emphasizes that of almost 300 successful international project groups only 4% had ever managed to meet as a whole group; less than 17% of team members reported ever having met any other team member in person. Online communication will never give you a realistic picture of your team member’s life and personality, so the best way of setting up a research team is to meet personally. Spending some days together in person, your unknown co-workers receive a personal profile. Probably you won’t become friends with every person in your team. After an in person meeting you can decide for yourself with whom you would only like to work with and with whom to keep up further personal contact.

Declaring team positions

Having team positions based on personal competences and preferences is the basis of motivated work. Within the context of psychological research there are certain positions that usually have to be filled: Who will be in charge of group communication? Who can take more time-consuming responsibilities? Who will be the lead analyst once we have collected data? Who has experience with international funding? Is anyone especially experienced with ethical approval? Who might be a good leader? Do we need a leader?

Psychology students do not always like the idea of working in a hierarchically structured team. But be aware of the fact that team members are always differing in experience. Maybe some don’t want too much responsibility, because they have never worked in international teams before, while others do have a good sense of organization and therefore would like to be in a delegating team position.


Without electronic communication technology international teams would not be able to work together. Defeating thousand kilometer barriers in communication makes such groups able to achieve great results.  Every year new technologies are coming up that can make international communication more effective; so-called Software as a Service (SaaS).

At the moment the most commonly used software for online communication is Skype – helping you to hold almost personal online meetings. But how often and when should a team meet for an online-conference? Many teams want to have a jour fixe, usually weekly, to always have a fixed meeting time far in advance. The bigger the distance, you will more probably have bigger time zone differences between the team members. This is just one aspect of uncontrollable factors that do not support fixed meeting times. The bigger the group, the bigger is the chance that one or more of the team members do have special occasions that cannot be postponed during their usual meeting time.

The next aspect is the frequency of team meetings. During the more work-intensive phases of a project, more frequent meetings are useful, whereas it can negatively affect motivation to do everything to keep the weekly meeting time free when in fact there are no important points on the schedule. For these reasons, online calendar tools like Doodle have become very common to set convenient meeting dates. Doodle is just the most popular of a volume of calendar-based tools. Such SaaS have started to incorporate each other, to benefit from different services’ functions. One example for such integration is that you can utilize Google Calendar to track dates with Doodle or use Google Maps to share the exact location of an in person-meeting. Please note that these services are just the most common of their kind at the moment. Examples of other SaaS that integrate many useful functions and are worth taking a look at are Moreganize and Tungle. And, believe me: if your team is motivated and you need to set up an important meeting within a short timeframe, it is going to work out somehow anyway, no matter which SaaS you are using!


It is important for the team members to always have access to all important research materials. This gives single team members the chance not just to work with the materials they are entrusted with, but also to coordinate and synchronize their work with the rest of the team and have a good overview of the whole project. For this purpose teams can use file sharing services that are based on cloud storage. Cloud storage is a networked online storage that gives teams the possibility of using file synchronization, to store and share files and folders with each other. The most common synchronized file sharing service at the moment is Dropbox. Again, Dropbox is just an example for a service like that; there are other services of this kind that are also free to use.

Problems in team communication and teamwork

Online communication goes along with an enormous conflict potential. The team members are forced to express their thoughts and ideas more precisely, because of communication systems limitations and differences in conceptions and use of terms. Communication rules like deadlines for response times or for cancellations of team meeting attendance are very useful, but they cannot prevent all communication problems; especially in difficult personal situations. If one does not react to your mails, what is the reason? Don’t they want to react, they just don’t care about it or has something serious happened to them? Because you can’t know what is going on in someone’s life based only on online communication, try to avoid prejudice and always reflect on what is really written in a mail, apart from your subjective impression. You might think that a person, who does not answer, does not care about the project at the moment. Would you, if you had a personal emergency?  Everyone deals differently with private issues, so the cultural and personal backgrounds of your team members should always be taken into consideration.


Although there are some problems occurring as a part of an international research project, the benefits and experiences you gain can overweight them. International research projects are a wonderful way to participate in a unique experience and outcome, in both scientific and interpersonal sense. The most rewarding part is when you realize that a previously loosely connected group has become a successful team.

Thus, if you ever do finish an international research project, the best part will certainly be to break the chains of online communication, meet up in person at any location in the world and celebrate your success all together!


Majchrzak A., Malhotra A., Stamps J. & Lipnack J. (2004). Can Absence Make a Team Grow Stronger? Harvard Business Review, 9, 1-9.

Recommended reading:

Duarte, L. & Snyder, N. T. (2006). Mastering Virtual Teams: Strategies, Tools, and Techniques that Succeed. New York: Wiley.

Peter Edelsbrunner

Peter Edelsbrunner

Peter is currently doctoral student at the section for learning and instruction research of ETH Zurich in Switzerland. He graduated from Psychology at the University of Graz in Austria. Peter is interested in conceptual knowledge development and the application of flexible mixture models to developmental research. Since 2011 he has been active in the EFPSA European Summer School and related activities.

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