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Background about me

I am an early-to-mid-career teaching-track faculty (four years of cross-curricular teaching experience in engineering) in the USA. I teach courses both at the undergraduate and graduate level. I also try to keep up with research and publish a conference or journal paper or so every year. It is hard work and my maturity is growing.

(About ten days ago, my research was identified by a rather senior faculty member (twenty years of research and consulting experience with multiples millions of dollar in grant money and more incoming) as being quite promising. I had a rather pleasant conversation with him and he was genuinely interested in my work and wanted to collaborate. Happiness abound!)

Main question

A few days ago, his PhD student stopped by my office to discuss my research. There are some common ideas I and the student are both working on. I found that although he is a smart student (yet to pass his PhD qualifiers), his attitude was a little off-putting with a superiority complex I have not sensed in the hundreds of students I interact with every semester. He wants to collaborate with me but kept saying things like “you should do ...” and “you could do ... for my research”. It is okay for a student to suggest a line of action, but I still feel that an instructor–student distance should be maintained. I certainly did not speak to my adviser in such a fashion and neither did my colleagues (to their advisers, during their PhDs).

I appreciate the exchange of ideas but I am somehow repelled by the idea of a student who I have barely only met has a superiority complex. This probably stems from him working with an adviser who is pre-eminent in his field.

I know that working with this student would likely lead to being co-PI on research grants but somehow, as mentioned earlier, I am repelled by this idea.

Is this common in academia, to come across PhD students with such a high superiority complex? Am I just being overly conceited and self-absorbed by feeling repelled? I am not sure if the student met with me on the behest of his adviser, but my gut feeling is to communicate research ideas directly with his adviser. At the same time, I feel that ignoring the student could impact my relationship with his adviser (unfounded fear perhaps, but I don't know).

I am reaching out to the larger advisers on this forum to get some perspective and thoughts on such situations. This is an immense opportunity for me to break into prominent research ranks after somewhat wallowing in teaching.

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    Is this common in [everywhere], to come across [people] with [disagreeable personality traits]? Yes, of course. Nothing specific to academia or PhD students. – Nate Eldredge Sep 21 '18 at 16:43
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    I know exactly the kind of student you mean. They try to take over classes (easier to put them in their place here since you should have a rigid plan already), and haughtily thank your guest speakers for you in seminars. But your issue isn't really clear. Was the plan to do pretty much exactly what the student presumed? I.e. build on "their" research? And now you are in an impossible position because you don't want to do the very thing you need to do? Or was there another plan the student is trying to take over? Because then you can just veto them and shut them down. – A Simple Algorithm Sep 22 '18 at 15:10
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    I still feel that an instructor–student distance should be maintained — Or better yet, mutual respect between colleagues (all three of you). – JeffE Sep 24 '18 at 13:59
  • Also, impose your own personality and experience. Simple. – Alchimista Nov 23 '18 at 12:43
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While your, I hope preliminary, assessment of the student as having a superiority complex may be correct, I think you might want to consider another option.

It may be that the student was told to try to impress you that he isn't the dumbest rock in the pile and so laid it on thicker than normal. It might be hard for a normal student to find an appropriate balance if he is new to this.

Since you indicate that there would be advantages from an association with his advisor, you might want to withhold judgement until you know and observe more. One think you might want to pursue is a talk with the advisor and work in the question "Is he always like that?". You might get some insight on how the student normally behaves that might make you more or less willing to take on the task. Of course, you might also learn that the student has, indeed, thought hard and deeply about the issues before approaching you. It isn't always easy to work with a truly brilliant student, but there is something to be learned from it.

If you have won a Fields Medal (mathematics) but come up against a student who makes you feel small it can be quite a shock. (Movie Reference: Good Will Hunting)

True enough that some people play dominance games, of course.

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    I will second this thought. When I was PhD student, I sometimes felt that I had to come across as highly intelligent and superior, else professors would dismiss me as being inferior. Academia is full of posturing. As my time went on, I learned how to taper my approach and I feel that I became easier to work with. – Vladhagen Sep 21 '18 at 20:59
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    @Vladhagen that’s very interesting. For what it’s worth, let the record show that some professors intensely dislike such posturing, and would be much more inclined to like (and want to work with) a grad student who comes across as sincere, honest and curious (for example by asking many questions, including “dumb” ones) as compared to an arrogant know-it-all. – Dan Romik Sep 23 '18 at 18:49
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Academia is no different than anywhere else: it has people who are talented and pleasant to work with, but also people who are talented and less pleasant to work with, including ones with a variety of psychological issues such as a superiority complex or a patronizing/domineering attitude.

So yes, it’s normal. Your feelings of being repelled are also normal. But with that being said, I agree with Buffy that it’s very hard to judge someone’s personality based on a short encounter in what from the student’s point of view must have seemed like a delicate and fraught professional situation (unfortunately, in my experience it seems that for some grad students almost all interactions with faculty are regarded as similarly fraught). So perhaps you should give the collaboration a chance. Also, people are capable of change, and it’s quite possible that if you simply politely ask the student to refrain from telling you what you “should” do he will adjust his behavior.

On the other hand, of course some people are simply insufferable and the pain of working with them is not worth the benefit. But I think it would be premature to decide based on the short experience you had that the student in question fits this profile.

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Unfortunately some students - sometimes gifted students - can be excited about a topic and not realize that some things they say or do come across poorly. You ought first to make sure this is not a one-off or a misunderstanding: I would quietly talk your colleague to see if he has identified this kind of behaviour with the student. You may discreetly point out to your colleagues that the “overbearing enthusiasm” (or such similar turn of phrase) of his student made you a little uncomfortable.

While you may think the student has behaved unprofessionally, make sure you yourself remain professionnal with the student. One way to do this is to communicate directly your colleague on this topic but without seeking to avoid the student if he is present or nearby. Basically, you want to make sure your discussions on this topic are perceived to be (at least initially) primarily between you and your colleague, not between you and his student.

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