Collaborator is a jerk?

Comic from, by Randall Munroe, of course.

From, of course.

My last blog post was about my early summer math spree, mostly working with some excellent collaborators. This website gives us some stats about the posts: number of people who looked at it, where they were directed from, what links people clicked, etc. One of the stats is “top searches,” which seems to be a list of search terms that led people to PhD plus Epsilon. Strangely, one of the top searches that landed people at my recent post was “collaborator is a jerk.”

I found this pretty funny, since that post was all about how great my collaborators are. I have been very lucky and happy to work with wonderful people. However, this search term betrays that not everyone is as enamored with their collaborators as I am with mine. I have not ever had a terrible collaborator, or even a bad one. But I have heard about some, and I admit that I have done some things that I later realized were probably really annoying to my own collaborators.

What makes a great or terrible collaborator? For me to work well with someone, the most important thing is that this person wants to work on a project with me. Not just that this person wants to do the same thing, but that they actively want to work together. We both want to do the math, of course, but we both have to really value each other as part of the project. Even when someone is confused, or taking a long time to figure something out, we both (all) have to feel that everyone understanding an essential goal of the project. It really is, because otherwise someone can’t contribute, and then what’s the point of collaborating at all?

Beyond this basic agreement in motivation, here are some things I think about in collaboration:

Great in a collaborator Not great in a collaborator
Speaks up but also listens carefully, has great ideas, works hard, asks good questions, willing to work examples/do computations


Very passive or easily cowed, or incredibly attached to their own ideas, not interested in listening to others, or unwilling to ask questions or display ignorance, condescending, undermining, impatient with explanations
Generally responsive, but understanding when people are busy or just a little flaky sometimes Totally unresponsive, or inflexibly demanding of everyone’s immediate attention
Willing to write, willing to edit, okay with other people editing their work Unwilling to write anything, or won’t read other people’s work, or very controlling of written document, rewrites everything
Likes to do stuff, also happy to let other people do stuff Won’t do anything, or does every possible thing before anyone else has a chance to contribute
Consults with collaborators about speaking for the group, seeking outside help, involving others, submitting work, making major edits Makes group decisions unilaterally

Reading this over, it’s mostly really obvious. Some of it comes down to being a jerk or not. Since it seems like most people try not to be jerks, maybe the interesting question is: how do nice people accidentally drive their collaborators crazy? I have definitely found myself doing things that I realized later weren’t good. For example, sometimes I have been intimidated and afraid to ask questions. I have also been so eager to contribute that I have tried to do everything, and I have gotten overwhelmed and been unresponsive for way too long. Luckily my collaborators have always been very gracious, and given me some good ideas on how to work better together in the process.

I’m curious: what do you think are the most important qualities in a collaborator? Good/bad stories of working with people?

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7 Responses to Collaborator is a jerk?

  1. Avatar Errol Montes-Pizarro says:

    A good collaborator is a person in front of which you are not afraid to be wrong. This allows you to share your ideas freely…

  2. Avatar John Q. Public says:

    Nice post… This can apply to many fields, I think.

  3. Avatar bmalmskog says:

    As an update, one of the top searches today is “how to impress a math major.” Definitely by mentioning PhD + Epsilon…

  4. Avatar Thomas Weibull says:

    When using an xkcd, you should always include the title text.

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