Working With Jerks

Brian Taylor

July 25, 2010

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