A surprising request
Well yesterday was unexpected. I got a phone call from someone I wasn’t expecting to ever hear from again. My former classmate who I wrote the journal paper we just finished reviewing and resubmitting. It was unexpected because after we submitted it the first time he sort of dropped off from contact (despite the back and fourths with the other people on the paper). He was asking for a reference for a research position and I said I would do it, but I was a little surprised given our history.
I hate group work. Mostly because I tend to take assignments more seriously than my classmates. I don’t do it intentionally, it’s just a weird quark of mine that I live with. In any case, the journal paper was a big assignment and I took it very seriously. As I should, a journal paper is a lot of work and the standards for publication are significantly higher than a conference paper. Plus we were on a class schedule so we had to do all the other stuff for the class on top of this journal paper. The class itself was 12 weeks, but the paper didn’t get finished for almost a whole year (we submitted it a while ago).
The problem was I basically ended up doing all the work. We split the work into two parts, I would write the paper, he would modify the code for the work we were doing. This was an expansion on previous work that the last group in the previous years class had done, so the code was written, things were supposed to be easy. I was trying to be nice and I gave him what I thought would be the easier part of the work and too many people writing code didn’t sit well with me, everyone has their own coding style so it would make for twice the work and twice the amount of time to do the job.
Instead I would write the paper, he would work on the code and we would trade off once he got something useful. I would verify the code, he would offer suggestions on the paper and we would meet in the middle with each of us doing roughly half the work. It was a good plan! Was…
Things fell apart really fast. It became apparent he didn’t have the MATLAB skills he said he had at the beginning of the project. What’s worse is that every week when we checked in with each other we agreed that things were going well. I was meeting our writing deadlines and he claimed to be meeting the milestones for our code. We had several milestones in the class for the writing portion, but only two real milestones for the code, so each milestone I hit we would check in and make sure things were going smoothly with the code. He said they were and we left it at that.
Then the truth came out. About a week before our first presentation he was going to have to show some result from our code. He explained that he didn’t have anything working and he hadn’t really started on his end of the project, he was, as he put it, trying to understand what the other group had done. Basically all we had to show for our presentation was whatever I could come up with, which I ended up coming up with a lot, but it was mostly explaining how we would do the work instead of showing the actual work. Our instructor (who I absolutely look up to and wanted to impress) was not thrilled with this.
First, let me just say that I admit I may have been a little short with him! This was just weeks after COVID-19 had become a thing, it had just hit the first cases here in the US and I could already see things were going to get really, really bad. I even modeled the spread of COVID for the class since state space models are often used for epidemiology (Part 1)(Part 2)(Part 3)(Part 5)(Part 6), part 4 I skipped because it was just a small note that I was still working on the model. So yeah things were bad, getting worse, and I was stressed out about all of it. However, it was a serious project, in a serious class, with a journal paper as the result, so I took it incredibly serious. It was obvious that we were not on the same page going forward about the amount of work we were willing to put into the project.
This would unfortunately be a running theme. Eventually I had to just take over and write the code as well (here I complain about that). Again, looking back there was a lot of stress and I probably was slightly harder on him than I should’ve been. He did end up doing some of the work, just not a lot, but he agreed that he didn’t do a lot so I got to claim the first author spot instead of splitting first authorship, which for me was about as much of a win as I could get.
So yesterday’s request came out of nowhere. I was not expecting him to ask me for anything, but here we are. I think he knew that I wasn’t his biggest fan either because he explicitly asked me to say nice things about him. I’m not that kind of person though, I wouldn’t agree to something just to screw him over. So instead they will hear all the good stuff that came out of our work together. Mostly that he can do work and somewhat problem solve. I’ll have to be overly polite about all that, but I wouldn’t want to be the person who caused him not to get the job.
In any case I have a zoom call to look forward to later today where I get to quickly sum the experience of working with my classmate. I reassured him I will only say the good stuff and I will, again I’m not that kind of person to screw someone over like that. I was probably pretty harsh with my assessment of him while I was going through the class anyway. I was just expecting more on his part, but he did actually do a bit of the work, so there is that.