Usually you hear “People, not projects” in discussions on how grant dollars should be distributed. Yesterday I came to think how the syntagma holds for collaborations.
I have long-term collaborators with whom I really enjoy working. Our collaborations may not be continuous, but they are frequent as we often apply or funds together. I like how they think, how they work with students and postdocs, how they work in general, their attitude towards science and towards publishing. Yes, I also like them as people. However, there are a number of colleagues whom I like as people but with whom I think (or I tried, so I know) I wouldn’t enjoy working.
When I like collaborating with someone, I will work with them on pretty much any topic where my expertise makes sense to employ. From the good interpersonal chemistry comes good science, because good collaborators amplify each other’s contribution. The back-and-forths are constructive, the insights build upon one another, and the whole result is really much more than a sum of parts.
I also have this perhaps unusual quality that I get along fairly well with several people who are considered difficult by some other colleagues. Probably that means I am difficult myself. For instance, I worked very well with my PhD advisor, who was notorious as a difficult person. After I had become a professor, for years people would ask me how I survived working with him, to which I said it was no problem and that we worked very well together. The point was to understand what it was that brought about an over-reaction from him (the prospect of losing face, in class or in front of colleagues, all based on insecurity) and working around him (not pressing an issue when he got agitated, following up with an email after he’d wound down and had a chance to think about it). At my current place of employment, I work very well with several people who are considered volatile. I have no problem with them, either. I have found that my cultural background helps in that I don’t expect people to behave as infallible smiling robots. I consider them to be humans, which means they do have a right to not always be gregarious, they can be tired or anxious or pissy or happy, as long as they are engaged with the work. It seems to me that difficult people relax and don’t freak out around you when you don’t freak out around them. Note that there is a difference between “professional but grumpy/sad/angry” and “unhinged or abusive or petulant.” Nobody should have to tolerate the latter, while the former I consider a normal part of close interactions such as collaborations. I find the ability to relax and just be yourself around someone to be absolutely key for long-term collaborations, especially for the free flow of ideas.
In contrast, I could not work effectively with a person who is considered one of the nicest and most polite persons in the department. While always pleasant and upbeat, this colleague was hard for me to work with because they were unwilling to prioritize our work, did not actually engage with the technical problems very much so I did all the technical heavy lifting with the junior researcher, and they had exceedingly long turnover time for any type of feedback on collaborative work while expecting to have the last word. We wrapped up the collaboration under a grant we had together and I will unlikely seek to work together again. I am guessing they found me irritating and demanding, but I will never know because they won’t ever break the nicety facade.
My favorite collaborators have similar work schedules as me — work a lot, often crazy hours, and are generally always available to talk science. Email conversations often happen 10 pm – 12 am. We both make joint work a priority. When I have an idea, I am not afraid to run it by them. They respect my theory work and seek my input, and are willing to try experiments if I have an interesting hypothesis to try. They treat their students and postdocs with respect and a lot of autonomy, and they show respect by prioritizing their students’s and postdocs’ success — publishing a lot and well, engaging junior people with writing proposals, sending them to give invited talks. A favorite local collaborator of mine is probably in his late 60’s or early 70’s and has one of the coolest groups I know. They are all unbelievably loyal to him, and he treats them with warmth and humor. I hope to be like him when I grow up.