No Jerks Allowed, with some exceptions

A reader ponders yet another mystery of advising, in this case graduate students:

One of the prospective grad students who would likely have worked with me if he had come to my institution accepted another offer instead. That's fine but I heard later that my current students were very relieved that he didn't accept our offer because they thought the guy was a total jerk and they didn't want him in the group. The fact that I wanted to work with him therefore meant that either didn't know he was a jerk (meaning I am clueless) or that I didn't care (meaning I think that as long as someone is smart, it's OK if they are a jerk). Either way this was bad for morale in the group. Or so I am told.

I did know that the prospective student was arrogant and I do care about group morale, but I don't think we can really tell what someone is like based on a short visit on a recruiting weekend. Should I use this as a teachable moment and explain that to my group? It occurred to me that I might end up wrecking their morale even more if I explained myself because wouldn't it be like saying I actually don't care what they think? There is a grain of truth to that, but just because I don't agree with their grad recruiting opinions doesn't mean I don't respect their opinions in general. In fact, I thought some of them were jerks when they visited, but they work well in the group and we get along well, I think. So it's complicated and I'm thinking of just not saying anything and assuming this is just one of those things that grad students need to complain about but it isn't a vital issue I need to address with them. Your thoughts?

This reminds me of something. It reminds me of when I was a grad student and a prospective student visited to check the place out. He was obnoxious, even by the standards of a department that was already overpopulated by gigantic egos and extreme levels of arrogance. His visit became notorious among the grad students, and we all hoped he would accept another illustrious offer that he made sure to tell us about.

But he didn't. He came to Our University. And he turned out to be a very interesting person with a great sense of humor. He was well-liked and made a lot of friends. Reader, I married him.

So, I come down on the side of believing that you can't really tell a lot about a grad student from their behavior during a recruiting visit. I am sure that some who display jerkish behavior during such an event are in fact pervasively obnoxious people and will be forevermore, but that is not necessarily true of all who give that impression.

Anyway, the main question is whether the advisor should have a chat with the grads about their grumblings on this particular issue (assuming the source of information is reliable about such grumblings) or assume this is a nano-tempest that can be ignored while you focus instead on the 57,892,345 more important things that need to be done now, or yesterday.

I guess I'd be tempted to ignore the issue, though it might be good at some point to devote a group meeting to general issues of Doing Research/Working With Others etc. Maybe there are issues that need explanation or discussion, even if you have no  intention of justifying all your decisions about grad recruiting and advising.

That suggestion, which may or may not be helpful, is based on the assumption that the research group is overall functioning well, with most or all students progressing towards their degree with no more than the usual amount of anxiety and complaints. If, however, this bit of unhappiness is symptomatic of something more serious, then the question becomes: How do you (the advisor) know if that is the case, and what can/should you do about it, if anything?

Advisor-readers: How do you know what the general mood is of your advisees, as a group? Can you tell from a general sense of camaraderie (or lack thereof)? From the number of complaints? Do you ask directly whether some/most/all group members get along? Do you gauge the mood by getting indirect information (for example, from someone who tells you what so-and-so said at the pub)? I am not asking whether you care (although that might be interesting as well), but whether you have what you think is a reasonably accurate sense for group dynamics among your advisees and between your advisees and you, the advisor.

30 responses so far

  • Myn says:

    This isn't quite the perspective you were asking for, but seems relevant, perhaps as an example of what not to do?

    When I was looking for graduate advisors during my first year of grad school, I checked out two groups. I talked with Group 1 first, liked the advisor and students, but they told me to look around before deciding. I talked to Group 2, liked the students and work but was unsure about the advisor, and waffled for awhile before telling Group 1 I wanted to work with them. Advisor 1 told me that while she personally was happy to hire me, her students were resentful that I had looked at another group, and didn't really like me. I offered to talk to the students again and smooth over any difficulties, and had another meeting with the Group 1 students... which was very awkward, because I was trying to address any issues and it became clear that they didn't have issues with me, and weren't sure at all why we were meeting. I spent the first few months in the group afraid that everyone still secretly disliked me, though eventually we got to be friends and I realized they had never had a problem with me in the first place.

    So why did Advisor 1 tell me that the students disliked me? My best guess is that she was the one who was mad that I looked at another group, and she was the one who disliked me, and rather than saying something neutral like 'we don't have money for a grad student, as it turns out' she wanted me to know I was disliked without admitting that those were her feelings. I don't think she expected me to try to join the group anyway, but I wanted to prove I was good, which was probably stupid on my part.

  • postdoc says:

    I'm not an adviser yet, but I wanted to tell a short story about a grad student in the lab where I did my PhD. He was savvy enough not to be a jerk to our adviser--until the fourth year, when he found a mentor who praised him frequently and didn't disagree with his science. But he was a total jerk from day 1 to others in the lab. He was really insufferable and got up in everybody's business, telling them how to do things (especially the women) and why other people were idiots compared to him. Every day for years I dreaded interacting with him. My adviser had no idea what was going on until he turned on her, and then my adviser discovered that half the lab had not been on speaking terms with him for many months. We were a pretty cheerful, stable, non-colluding bunch, but I stopped trying after he accused me of deep personal flaws X, Y, and Z, and argued that everyone else in the program thought so too. (I investigated by speaking with some blunt colleagues, and they didn't agree.)

    With some kinds of jerks, there's really no level of healthy toleration. They shouldn't be working with other people. What's sad is that I heard he had a really nice conversation with someone at a conference who decided to hire him for a postdoc. The future adviser never bothered to check with the PhD adviser, who would not have been able to recommend him.

    Some jerks turn out to make great scientists, friends, and husbands. Others can severely damage your lab. Be very careful trusting your gut when others say something's wrong.

    • postdoc says:

      The second moral is that if your grad students and postdocs are very professional and upbeat, you need to actively solicit their honest opinions to know what's really going on. Until things got really bad with this jerk, I had no idea what others in the lab thought of him--we kept these kinds problems to ourselves. I was never thinking of telling our adviser. She was the last to know, and she learned 6-12 months after most of us had stopped trying to be colleagues with him. She was a pretty attentive and astute adviser, too.

  • It's good to see you here at Scientopia today!

  • That's fine but I heard later that my current students were very relieved that he didn't accept our offer because they thought the guy was a total jerk and they didn't want him in the group.

    This represents a severe process issue with the management of the lab. When interviewing potential new members of a lab, existing members should be part of the interview process and their opinions should be solicited by the lab head and given strong consideration in deciding whether to offer a position.

    When I interview people for post-doc positions (in the biomedical sciences we don't accept grad students directly into our labs, and only accept students into programs, after which they do lab rotations during their first year to choose a lab), the interview process involves multiple contexts for current lab members to interact with the interviewee both formally and informally without me present. I then obtain feedback from the lab about the interviewee and give strong consideration to their opinions in deciding whether to make on offer. If there were a strong consensus that the person wouldn't fit in for personality reasons, I would definitely not make an offer. And even if there were not a strong consensus, but one or more people whose opinions on such matters I have grown to trust thought there might be a problem, I would have a hard time making an offer.

    It is great that your husband seemed like an asshole, but turned out to be a good husband (not an asshole?). However, the actual downside for a well-functioning collegial lab to have a single toxic asshole join *far, far* outweighs the lost opportunity downside to not making an offer to someone who might turn out to be great. There is simply no comparison, and it is thus almost always better to err on the side of not making an offer than making an offer.

    • DrOrangeCat says:

      But the point is that we aren't a good judge of these things based on a short stressful visit. It's fine to solicit opinions from the group but I've found that my students tend to favor the ones who are fun to go out for beer with. Some of these turn out to be outstanding grad students and some don't. Some excellent students who have gone on to successful careers as professors, including who are great teachers, were very awkward or obnoxious from first impression. If you can tell in advance that someone is going to be toxic, I am impressed. I have never been able to predict this. Some of the nicest, most energetic students on first impression turned out to be slackers who complained all the time and poisoned the atmosphere with their bitterness and paranoia, and some of the awkward and obnoxious ones turned out to be genuinely nice people who were good group members, helping others and generating positive energy in the group.

      • postdoc says:

        Impressions might be noisy, but they still contain information. I don't think it matters how much "fun" someone is--you're right that that has a lot to do with beer and chance and little to do with scientific potential. However, it means something if the candidate won't shut up about his/her superlative undergraduate research and interviews at other prestigious institutions, or if a candidate says how impressed he is that a female grad student knows so much math... and he's referring to basic calculus and linear algebra. (I've seen the last one a few times, though interdisciplinary biases might also be at play.) As CPP mentioned, the potential damage of a jerk to a lab group--to the career trajectories of people already under your mentorship-- is enormous.

        It's funny that we think of success in such an individualistic context: "So-and-so started as a pompous ass but mellowed out and produced tons of pubs. Therefore, she was a good hire." What was her impact on the rest of the team? The problem becomes annoyingly high-dimensional, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to consider it. Most research is intensely collaborative with countless opportunities for benefit and harm.

        Perhaps equally important, if you (generic) believe there might be an oversupply of PhDs in your field, why hire candidates who aren't clearly competitive?

        • Anon says:

          Who ever said these possibly obnoxious people aren't competitive and can't learn to be a good team player? No one is saying that toxic people are good in a group, the question is whether you can tell this from a quick impression. I agree that it's hard to tell from a recruiting visit. My students don't seem to be any better judge of this than I am.

        • anonymous consultant says:

          As CPP mentioned, the potential damage of a jerk to a lab group--to the career trajectories of people already under your mentorship-- is enormous.

          "Amen to that," the AC said, looking back at where her science career broke.

  • First impressions really are important. If someone is acting badly when they should be on their best behavior, you can't really be surprised when they act even worse on a day to day basis. Of course, especially in light of FSP's experience, it's important to remember that people could just have a bad day or overcompensate for feeling nervous, or something, and we should try to give them the benefit of the doubt. If someone into my group acted like a jerk on the interview I would try to get some concrete information that they were able to work well with others, and otherwise I don't think I could take them in. Even a medium scale jerkiness can suck productivity away from those who have to work with the person.

    Once I met an arrogant person who really bothered me the first time we met, even though what he did wasn't so bad (he basically questioned the assumptions of a large part of my work, and then wouldn't let up with his questioning for a few minutes even though I explained it to him further and he should have understood, or at least given up temporarily to do some additional reading, by then). We were on separate but related projects in different groups. I acted normally to him but I really didn't like talking with him after that. More than a year later, he was doing something wrong and for awhile wouldn't listen to me or a few other people who tried to explain the problem to him. What a waste of everybody's time! I wasn't too surprised, though.

  • Old Biddy says:

    I think it's important to strive for a good group dynamic overall, and I do solicit opinions on incoming students and prospectives. The students do occasionally come to me about minor personality conflicts and to let me know if there's something stressful going on in their lives or the lives of one of their fellow students.
    From my experiences as a student/postdoc/industrial scientist, I think it's also important to let the students work out minor personality conflicts on their own but step in as necessary. It's good to learn to work with all sorts of people, and not just your friends. The key is being aware, though. When I was a grad student we had a lot of strong personalities and tempers in the group. It was a pain occasionally, but we were rather self-policing for the most part. There were turf wars, squabbling, etc. However, we knew it was ok to stand our ground and fight back. Our advisor was pretty good at noticing the cliques, conflicts etc. We knew it was ok to go talk to him about problems, and he usually had one or two senior students whom he consulted if he suspected something was up.
    As a postdoc I worked for one of the nicest people in the world. He is a great scientist and person. Unfortunately, he had sort of a rose-colored view of the world and assumed that everyone got along. We didn't want to go complain to him when there were problems, and he never asked. When I was there, one student was a real jerk and had conflicts with just about everyone, even people in other groups. We tried to deal with it ourselves, and assumed our boss was aware of it, but he really didn't know. It wasn't until he walked in on the jerk and one of the most mild-mannered people in the group screaming at each other that he realized there was a problem.
    As an advisor, it's important to read between the lines, and have a few people you can ask if you suspect something is up. Sometimes the people who come in and complain are actually the ones causing the problem. It's important to be careful of scapegoating or not accepting people who are slightly different.

  • GMP says:

    In my field, students are typically hired sight unseen: no rotations and few TA-ships, so student joins a lab right off the bat; plus, the majority of students are foreigners, so you don't typically meet them in person until they start school. Even so, I always direct them to my graduate students and postdocs so they can interact a little even if via email/Skype before I make an offer (I rely of email exchanges and phone/Skype too to get to know them a bit). If the prospective student is here in person, I absolutely make sure that they meet my group members, and then ask afterwards what they thought of the potential colleague.

    I don't think I would ever hire someone where the group sentiment were against the person. But I don't think I have recently heard a strongly negative opinion from my group members, maybe because I have been lucky/skilled? about recruiting. Or maybe, as someone said upthread, people need to be explicitly prodded to share their honest opinion, especially if negative...

    I agree that one toxic person ruins it for everyone -- I had such a person in the group when I was a wee assistant professor; this student was a nightmare and I had to let him go.

    The guys currently in my group (it so happens that presently there are no women, not for a lack of trying to recruit them) all seem to get along fairly well. I am also very happy about the quality of the group right now, they are all smart and productive. When you have a good group, they also don't want to be diluted by lower quality colleagues (even if nice) so they can be excellent judges of people's potential (I learned this from a senior colleague) .

  • Jen says:

    I am thankful for programs that have students do rotations before joining a lab, because it gives everyone a chance to see how a group would work together. Recruiting weekends are too short to fairly assess how someone would fit in a group. I've seen both sides of the coin - in my recruiting class, a prospective grad student took jerkdom to a new level when he got drunk at a party and started hitting on several female grad students in a very lewd and inappropriate manner. The students reported his behavior to the program director, who then bounced him out of the interview before he had a chance to meet with any faculty. On the other hand, after I started grad school, one recruit came across as very arrogant, rubbed people the wrong way, and many of us were hoping she wouldn't join the program. However, she did join, and as we got to know her, it became evident that she really was a good person, but had such a bad case of social anxiety that she overcompensated in trying to deal with it.

  • Mac says:

    I think I was a little bit of a jerk when I interviewed where I did my PhD - acting a little arrogant when I normally get along well with people. I know for example that my advisor credits me with 'being a positive force for bringing the lab together' during my time there (quotes are his words). So why was I a jerk (e.g. mentioning other grad offers) in such an important interview? Part definitely results from my own stupidity - this was a top-5 grad program and the students had a reputation of being slightly arrogant so I was probably primed for reacting to that a bit (although really most people there were great and that was my own baggage). However, none of this was helped by going on the first meal of the interview with one of the grad students in the lab who informed me very bluntly that he didn't believe I was really good enough for the program or my potential advisor's lab. So, I was a little on the defensive after that. It all worked out - I even got along with the guy from that lunch (after a few years), but I would say you have to also watch how your group behaves during the recruitment process. This guy was simply very, very defensive of his position in the lab and newcomers as potential threats.

    So, one thing I plan to keep in mind is that even if my group functions well it doesn't mean that their reactions to potential new lab-mates is entirely based on a clear-eyed view of what will make the lab run well. Not to infantilize anyone but it's a little like asking "do you want a new sister who will take away time, money, and energy from you?" sure she might eventually help you but at the start she's just going to seem like a time-suck for your advisor when you want the attention. In the end I've helped my lab-mate and he's helped me but any new addition to the lab does potentially take away your advisor's time and he was not ready for that right then.

    Because of my experience, I plan to solicit opinions from the lab when I recruit new students but also to be sure that I'm aware of how they may be feeling about new additions.

    • carbon says:

      Completely agree with this - A little over a year ago I started my first job. On my first day of work (small company), my boss took me and the rest of the team to a coffee shop for a quick introduction, and this guy was a complete jerk to me. Among other things, he asked me what my grades were like at [top-ranked school]. For the record, I am very proud of having graduated from [top-ranked school], but I really hope people do not define me based on that. My other colleagues informed me that it is typical for him to do this to new people...I know for a while he used to get super defensive whenever I got any "attention." He was not a part of the interview process, but I can imagine what he might do to potential new hires if he were.

      I won't even get into women-pulling-up-the-ladder stories. I am not arrogant enough to believe that every rejection I've gotten was due to jealousy but I have dealt with catty women in my career.

      I do believe the group's opinion, whether it's an academic lab or company, is important. If the entire group gives input, reason will prevail over stuff like this and yes, the advisor/group leader should be aware of these things.

  • Trixie says:

    Agree with the other posters that soliciting the group's opinion/feedback on an interviewing (or rotating) student is essential to keeping a healthy lab dynamic. And I rely on two mechanisms to clue me in to personality conflicts, life drama, etc. among my current students and postdocs: (i) asking a trusted senior student (preferably a chatty one) what is going on with the lab, and (ii) we road trip as a group to two regional conferences each year -- nothing like a few hours in the car together to lubricate the conversational gears.

    • R says:

      The comment about taking a road trip to conferences relates to my experience as a recent graduate of a masters program in a field based science. My thought upon reading this was that I'm thankful for the opportunity that car rides out to the field with my adviser afforded for conversations. I found that such trips along with some field lunches, if there wasn't anything project specific to discuss during them, offered a good opportunity to raise issues or ask questions that never quite seemed pressing enough to raise during on-campus research/lab related meetings.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Toxic a-hole trainees are not only horrible for the lab. They can also screw up relationships with collaborators if the a-hole is the point person on the collaboration. Sorry but I'm not taking on a jerk trainee just because one of the other trainees around the department might find true love...

    • Westley says:

      But nothing can stop true love!

    • Anon says:

      That comment is irrelevant because the point is that we don't know in advance, after meeting someone briefly, whether they will be toxic or not. Or at least I don't know and none of my colleagues do either. It seems that biopeople have more exposure to potential trainees and so can make comments like this. I see my potential grads for an hour or two after they have already been accepted to my program with me as advisor, based on their application. Maybe that is why we all try to see the good in someone, because we can't do anything about it until they've been given a chance.

  • Icee says:

    Jerks can do some damage, no doubt, but many are transparent and skilled managers can sometimes cope pretty well with them. They can be identified and avoided or dealt with using simple guidelines if they're not insufferable.

    It's the insidiously toxic ones that are the worst. You don't know till they've stressed you out and made you feel like crap for the umpteenth time and then you finally have the epiphany that the person is manipulative and has been playing you all along. It's nearly impossible to be objective when you're in their sphere. Oh, they are so skilled and tricky that even when you make conscious efforts to deal with them in a healthy way, they almost always leave carcasses in their wake after they've chewed everyone up climbing their way to their goals. They trouble even shrewd managers.

    These people can be incredibly hard to identify even after you've known them for a while because they usually have outstanding social skills.

  • mooojojojo says:

    So, I understand that people can change, or be different from the first impression as your personal case attests.

    This is obviously more likely to be true the shorter the first impression is (a 2-3 month rotation will give a proportionally more truthful picture of the candidate than a 1 hour interview).

    But what I think needs to happen is for students to be given the opportunity to assess candidates, and their opinions should be solicited by the Adviser. If the opinions are overwhelmingly negative, then the Adviser needs to gather more information before accepting this person. If possible, solicit a frank opinion from the undergrad adviser or other people you know to have worked with this person directly (grad students in the lab that they worked with in undergrad, for example).

  • anon says:

    One thing the poster did not mention, nor anyone here, are letters of support. This is one thing that the adviser would presumably have that could provide information about the candidate as a person. If the letter was written by a former adviser/employer, etc, there ought to be some statement about how well the candidate interacted with other students/employees. I always say something about this when I write letters. If that information is missing, that could warrant a phone call, or could be a real red flag.

    It's possible that the candidate that was described felt that he had something to prove and came across as an asshole. I've known people like that who have ended up being great scientists and pleasant to work with (without marrying them). If the poster had access to references that indicated that the candidate was NOT an asshole, it might be worth it for him/her to explain this to others in the lab. This information, alone, could cloud judgement of poor behavior during an interview.

  • Klopenwurm says:

    In my experience, the first impression people have of potential hires does not have anything to do with their long-term attitude towards these people, if they are hired. On average at least. It is really hard to prove it, because people tend to retroactively correct their memories of what they thought and told at a time. But I see awkward people turning to be nice; jerks turning to be friends, and what's more important - seemingly "nice" people turning on to be really terrible. Not because they change (or not only because of that), but just because our first impressions are usually so misleading. And also because during the short interview visit prospective candidates do usually behave in a really really weird way.

    I although I'm not an adviser, I would say: don't pay too much attention to what people say. Ask them, to make them comfortable, but always reserve the right to hire the person anyway, because there's no way you could tell if the lab members will eventually come along well based on this first impression they have on each other.

  • anon says:

    (completely off topic but the jane eyre reference cracked me up)

    • another anon says:

      Me too! I'm sure most lab members wouldn't have a great first impression of Mr. Rochester.

  • Mercury says:

    I do agree fit to the group is important but I am not sure I would not hire a stellar candidate who I did not judge to be a jerk just because my other trainees did not like her/him, but I would take this into consideration. I am wondering about non-jerk fit issues though. For instance, I would much rather have the overt jerk type in the group (where I can temper the person's behavior or ask them to leave if they don't follow what is acceptable work in our lab) than the manipulative passive aggressive insane type. The manipulatives can wreak much more havoc in my experience. We just had a student I suspect has borderline personality disorder and the issue poisoned the lab morale for some time. But now that we have extricated ourselves from her crazy, I think we feel stronger and wiser as a group. Unfortunately it can be really hard to tell someone is manipulative early on.

  • ajdecon says:

    Disclaimer: not a PI, but I've been involved in hiring decisions for research or engineering groups in both academia and industry.

    I generally come down on the side of not hiring if the interviewee comes across as a jerk to anyone involved. It's true that it's hard to judge this based on a short, stressful recruiting visit, but I usually find that the impressions of potential co-workers are right a little more often than they're wrong. And the potential downside of a bad hire is a lot worse than the downside of missing out on a good candidate.

    Fail to hire a good candidate: A really smart person goes to a different lab and does great stuff. You miss out on the benefit of that person's work, but there are lots of smart people out there. Their joining a different group is unlikely to have a direct negative impact to you unless that person is an extreme rockstar in a group in narrow, direct competition to your's.

    Hire a jerk: The productivity of the entire lab suffers tremendously. Whether the jerk is productive or not, everyone around them is negatively impacted. Worse, if your group expressed reservations and you hired anyway, they have an uphill climb to even hit "neutral", and are likely to have a poor experience starting out even if they have a major positive personality shift.

    I'm actually seeing an extreme example of this in another research group right now, in which an arrogant and unproductive recent hire has caused one (productive!) student to switch groups due to personality conflict, wasted untold hours of everyone's time, and dramatically lowered the ability of the PI to work with *anyone* in the group (as he still defends the "hire" decision). Not worth the risk of hiring this kind of person.

  • Kris says:

    Given the oversupply of PhDs, no one is so indispensable that hiring them for their potential is worth damaging the potential of the rest of your team.

    I am glad the jerk turned out to be someone you liked enough to marry but being a good spouse doesn't equate to being a valuable or even non toxic team member in an entirely different setting.

    (I met my husband when we were both postdocs in the same lab. Initially I thought he was a jerk. Obviously I did fall in love with him for his many good qualities. But to this day I do still feel he is not someone I would want to work with in a professional setting. He is literally a totally different person at work like a Jekyll and hyde. A lot of it stems from long term early baggage from a toxic grad lab and toxic first postdoctoral lab which he never got over.)

    I value the opinions of my team members and out of respect for their contributions would place greater regard on their veto of a new candidate than any of my own personal reasons for wanting to hire that candidate.

  • Kris says:

    I also wanted to add that except in very rare cases, being a jerk does impair a scientist 's ability to be productive. Gone are the days where you can do earth shattering science entirely on your own with no one 's help. Well functioning teams are the ones that enable breakthroughs by their individual members as well as by the collaborative effort. At the very least even the lone ranger will require the help of someone some time.

    Thus no matter how smart and creative someone is they're not likely to reach their potential if they are jerks and no one wants to work with them. And in small fields having a reputation for not just failing to meet expectations but also being a jerk is more often a career killer. This is when smart jerks who get ahead are those who learn to be nice but only to those who can benefit them. Unfortunately academia seems rampant with these people at least in my field.