In the comments on yesterday’s post, a number of people said that I shouldn’t bother working with a particular obnoxious person. This made me think about the issue of working with jerks. It is unrealistic to believe that one can spend one’s entire career working only with nice, sane people, and there are certain circumstances in which working with jerks is necessary.
First, a definition: In this context, a jerk is someone who behaves in a consistently rude, manipulative, or unethical way. I am sure there are other adjectives, but these three cover a fair amount of ground. It is important to note that I am not talking about difficult people, or cranky people, or people who work at a different pace or in a different style than what I prefer. I am talking about people whose conversational style involves insults or threats and who lie about issues important to research collaboration (for example).
Why work with jerks? When is it necessary or even (on balance) preferred for a professor who has a lot of independence in choice of research topics and colleagues to work with a jerk?
Example: Early in my career, I chose to take my research in a new direction that required me to work with someone who had particular expertise and contacts. He turned out to be a high-level jerk (rude, manipulative, and unethical), but he helped me get started with this research. I benefited from working with him because I launched a new research project, and he benefited from working with me because I added him as a coauthor on many papers and supported some of his research funding with my grants. He does not publish much on his own, and these papers helped his career. Nevertheless, owing to his ghastly behavior, once I had attained a particular level of expertise in this research field, I jettisoned him. I felt that I had repaid the favor he had done me of sharing his knowledge, and it just wasn’t worth the continual stress and trauma of working with him any longer.
Now that my research career is well established, I don’t have to work closely with such people if I don’t want to. Nevertheless, in some cases, research collaboration involves working directly or indirectly with people who have one or more jerkian characteristics. If they are low-level jerks (rude, but not unethical), it might be worth it. Or not. It’s a choice that can be made in each circumstance.
Regarding the jerk I described yesterday, I help him or not as my time and inclination permit. I get to choose, and sometimes I choose to help him with his research or manuscript editing. His being a jerk is of no consequence to me. I don’t know him and I don’t have to work with him. So why help him? Helping him helps his students and is compatible with my philosophy of helping scientists in less fortunate circumstances than my own. I have chosen not to apply a jerk filter when deciding whom to help. That is a far different situation from one in which you have no choice and your career depends on a jerk.
6 months ago