• August 31, 2015

Working With Jerks

Science Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Some scientists toil in isolation, but in my field, collaboration is the norm. For most projects, I work in groups that range in size from two to tens. In some cases, I can choose my collaborators, but there have been situations in which I have had to work with obnoxious, rude, patronizing, manipulative, controlling, unethical, and/or unpleasantly strange people.

I am not referring to people who are merely difficult or who have a different style of working. If we make the definition of "jerk" broad enough to include routine incompatibility, then we are all jerks, at times. So when I use the term here, I am referring to people who are more extreme and systematic in their unpleasant behavior.

It is nearly impossible for most researchers to go through an entire career without ever working with a jerk.

Much has been written in the corporate world on the topic of difficult co-workers and bosses. Some of the issues are universal, but others are more specific to academe. That is, the personality types might be similar in academic and nonacademic settings (e.g., the bully, the manipulator, the patronizer, the whiner, the passive-aggressive underminer, etc.), but some of the methods and situations that academic jerks have at their disposal are different.

Academic jerks. The stress of acquiring tenure, and the opportunities for the tenured to exert power over the untenured, can result in certain people behaving in a less-than-nice way. In particular, the need to have many publications and grants may result in aggressive behavior (regarding authorship or principal-investigator status, for example), and the power that reviewers of grants and manuscripts hold over others can sometimes be misused. A scientist once wrote to tell me that he was reviewing one of my manuscripts. In the same message, he asked me to pay for a research activity that was in his interest but not mine. I declined and forwarded his message to the journal editor.

Some tenured faculty members take advantage of the untenured in various ways involving research, teaching, or service. I used to have a senior colleague who asked me to teach his classes from time to time. He was not going to be out of town, and he was not teaching a subject for which he needed my expertise; he just wanted a break, and his preference was to ask tenure-track faculty members who would be unlikely to say no.

Such incidents are not rare, but also not so common that they undermine the fundamental principles of tenure. In the example just mentioned, I could have refused my colleague's request to teach his class, and he might still have voted to award me tenure.

Nevertheless, he used my vulnerable employment position to get something he wanted.

Why work with jerks? There are two answers: Because you have no choice. Or because, although you have a choice, you see some benefit in working with a particular jerk.

First, let's consider involuntary collaboration with jerks. Before tenure, you need to make strategic decisions about projects and collaborators to maximize the significance and impact of your research. To accomplish that, you may need to work with a despicable colleague who gives you access to something you need. Or it might be the opposite situation: A senior colleague wants to work with you, and you feel you can't say no. Even those of us who have tenure may not have much choice of collaborators on certain projects, especially if we work in a large group and don't have control over who participates.

Or perhaps you do have a choice. Maybe you need access to a technique or a facility that is presided over by a jerk. You're not required to work with that person but doing so is important to the overall progress of your research. A strict no-jerks rule might do more harm than good.

There may also be altruistic reasons to work with some jerks. For example, from time to time I voluntarily work with a particular scientist who is unpleasant in a remarkable number of ways. He is manipulative, he tries to make me feel guilty for not devoting all my time and energy to his research, and he likes to take credit for my ideas and results. So why do I still work with him? I feel sorry for his graduate students. It is not their fault their adviser is a jerk, and it is easy for me to provide them with some useful data for their dissertation research. There are limits to my altruism, however, and I try to keep my interactions with that scientist infrequent.

As I get older, I have less patience with unpleasant colleagues. I can almost always find some reason to put up with a certain amount of unpleasantness for the sake of the larger project, or the students, or other colleagues, but do I want to? What level of difficulty is acceptable and what level justifies ending a collaboration despite the consequences?

Breaking up with a jerk. Is there a good way to end an unpleasant working relationship? Perhaps you have tried to discuss the problems and failed. There probably isn't a good way to end things, at least not if good means easy, uncomplicated, or without negative consequences. Such situations are seldom as simple as saying (via phone, e-mail, text message, or Facebook update): "You are a jerk, and I am not working with you anymore"—even if you leave out the first part.

The difficulty of breaking off an unpleasant collaboration may help perpetuate the jerk species in academe. In some cases, a breakup seems impossible because of complicating circumstances, like personal connections or research commitments. If there are such issues, you have to think carefully about whether, and how, to end that relationship.

Only once have I suddenly and dramatically ended a collaboration with an extraordinarily jerky scientist. It took many years of putting up with bad behavior before I reached the point of no return. That breakup involved me yelling at my soon-to-be-ex colleague, in a rather emphatic way that startled passers-by as we stood on a sidewalk: "You are a psychopath. I am done working with you." I walked away, and that was that.

A less dramatic way to end an unpleasant collaboration, however, is a gradual, diplomatic retreat, involving repeated claims of being too "busy" to work with a certain person. That is a bit cowardly, especially if your ex-colleague is in the dark about why you are ending your collaboration, but, in some cases, it may be the best way. Perhaps you can gradually extricate yourself or find some other exit strategy that doesn't involve yelling at each other on a sidewalk, although, as I can attest, the latter method can be effective.

Although jerks are not as rare as they should be in academe, it is important to note that most of my colleagues are decent, kind, and pleasant. In particular, I have a few longtime collaborators who are excellent scientists and extraordinarily nice people. Working with them is a pleasure and (mostly) makes up for the jerks.

Female Science Professor is the pseudonym of a professor in the physical sciences at a large research university who blogs under that moniker and writes monthly for our Catalyst column. Her blog is http://science-professor.blogspot.com.


1. 11182967 - July 26, 2010 at 09:35 am

Feminist need-jerk reaction?

2. emilfriedman - July 26, 2010 at 09:41 am

Being asked to teach someone's class does not have to be viewed as an imposition. It can be a valuable learning experience. Or it could be a way to compare the teaching ability of various junior faculty members. Depending on the class and the senior colleague's teaching ability it might even be considered an honor.

3. indepenguin - July 26, 2010 at 10:25 am

Let's take the gender out of this equation, please. It's not a joke, and this situation isn't limited to women alone.

4. jffoster - July 26, 2010 at 10:38 am

Take the _sex_ out too.

5. interface - July 26, 2010 at 11:56 am

@ #1 - pot calling kettle? :-)

6. babyboomer46 - July 26, 2010 at 01:16 pm

I agree with indepenguin. This is a very real and very nasty side of the pressure to do research and win grants at research and research wannabe institutions. However, it seems part of the human psyche as I've seen it in the military and in medical schools as well.

7. 11182967 - July 26, 2010 at 02:47 pm

A joke, folks. A tongue-in-cheek punny joke. Of course both the jerks and their victims can be either male or female, though we all know from experience that the jerk to victim ratio is heavily male to female (so you can't take the "sex" out of it, esp. when the post is written by Female Science Professor). The real ratio is power to powerlessness, or, better, perceived (on the part of the jerk) power to perceived powerlessness. The assumed right to bully others is probably the most pernicious aspect of tenure. We'll see how that works when the gender ratio has changed, as it surely will.

8. clearsight - July 26, 2010 at 10:03 pm

Working with jerks is problematic, but there are several considerations for interaction other than submission or withdrawal. You may consider reading the book, "Leadership Voices: Neutralizing Bullies, Determinedly Difficult People, and Predators At Work," 2006. Here is a link to a review of the book from (About.com: Human Resources)

9. amnirov - July 27, 2010 at 07:47 am

Dear 7, NO, we don't all know from experience that jerk behavior is predominantly male on female. My experience has been that jerk behavior is an equal opportunity endeavor. There is nothing less helpful than people like you spouting off sexist garbage. The volume of misandrist nonsense on this site is staggering.

10. unclibrary - July 27, 2010 at 10:04 am

Here's a better strategy that doesn't undermine the tenure system. Refuse to let tenured profs take advantage of untenured ones in the ways described above. Get their requests in writing, and then refuse them, and later if they deny you tenure for political reasons make sure you have that email trail ready for your appeal.

Every time a junior faculty member accepts this kind of behavior the tenure system is further eroded, as it should be if it turns out to do little more than protect the right of those who have "done their time" to take advantage of those who are "coming up through the ranks."

11. unusedusername - July 27, 2010 at 10:18 am

My PhD advisor was a jerk. He did teach me one valuable lesson, though. I have a supervisory role, and I know how not to treat my subordinates.

12. vixenvena - July 27, 2010 at 11:55 am

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13. skaking - July 27, 2010 at 12:42 pm

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14. lost_angeleno - July 27, 2010 at 01:29 pm

Yeah, som real thread-killers here. Wonder what they're compensating for?

15. posoft - July 27, 2010 at 04:03 pm

I belive most people in acedeme are decent, kind, and pleasant. There is very tiny amount of real Jerks. And there are alot of people in between. It is all about clash of peronalities. Some treat different to different people.We sometimes be a jerk to someone, and be very nice to another. Instead of looking for a jerk around we need to check ourselves. Do not be jerk, do not make someones already tough period of life miserable

16. honore - July 28, 2010 at 09:50 am

Jerkism is an equal opportunity personal short-coming.

HOWEVER, in the professional context it has NO place.

Keep your personal idiosyncratic character flaws at home. No one on campus needs to be subjected to it.

Can't manage to be a human being in your day-to-day exchanges with others?

Then go and become president or chancellor where a bloated coterie of fawning, face-licking lackies will anxiously await you with applause and chilled Perrier.

17. eelalien - July 28, 2010 at 11:49 am

What is at the core of the problem of jerks-at-work in ANY workplace environment is that the attitude is not only tolerated but tacitly (or even overtly) encouraged. If jerks get ahead, well, then, one ought to be a jerk! The management in such environments are often jerks themselves, thereby fostering and nurturing a poisonous culture of backstabbing to get ahead and exploitation according to pecking order. True leadership does not condone such an environment, as it is counterproductive and anathema to a healthy work environment.

18. philosophy5 - July 29, 2010 at 05:10 pm

Good point.

19. philosophy5 - July 29, 2010 at 05:16 pm

I am dealing with collective jerk behavior, or the "herd of jerks" mentality, Example: The herd has really screwed up and they know it. The odd man out has it right and the herd knows it. The sophomoric response of the herd is to cook up a scheme to save face. Solution: Tell the person who has it right that he/she needs to use descriptive words when making a point. In my case, the whole point of the herd is the chip away at someone's much deserved credibility.

20. mkfan - July 30, 2010 at 11:31 am

One thing I've noticed is bullies/jerks are very careful about who they are nasty to. They are very nice to a lot of people but then target people who they have some institutional advantage over. Or they target the person who they perceive some weakness in and who they dislike. Just because they are not nast to everyone doesn't mean they are not a bully.

21. afnaar - August 02, 2010 at 12:13 pm

To # 11 who said "My PhD advisor was a jerk. He did teach me one valuable lesson, though. I have a supervisory role, and I know how not to treat my subordinates."

Excellent and so true if one truly 'gets' the lesson inherent in why one is working under someone less than desirable; to turn it into a learning opportunity!

22. ellisisland - August 02, 2010 at 02:40 pm

Great research by Bob Sutton: "The No A**hole Rule" (http://bobsutton.typepad.com/my_weblog/the_no_asshole_rule/)

This topic seems very much related to workplace bullying and mobbing and even blatant discrimination.

23. honore - August 05, 2010 at 11:56 pm

goxewu, because we all know they're full of....

24. goxewu - August 06, 2010 at 10:15 am

Re #24:

Yeah, but how does honore know which ones, or even if all of them, have continence "issues"? (I'm not sure I really want to know the answer to that, either.)

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