Given that PhD students and professors often need to use different skill sets to accomplish their jobs, are there instances of people who had good but unremarkable careers as a PhD student, but much more success as a professor? If this describes you, can you describe why this might have been the case? I personally feel that my technical skills are comparatively average to my peers, but my writing, conceptualization and framing skills are above average. My own PhD journey thus far is fine, but not remarkable. Assuming I manage to find a faculty position, do you think I might be able to have a more accomplished career than when I was a student? How might I do this?

  • 10
    I've met so many professors which are unremarkable or even (sorry) not good at what they have chosen to do. I usually believe they were outstanding PhD students... which simply is no guarantee for good performance in a different role ;)
    – jvb
    Commented May 5, 2019 at 10:08
  • See related question academia.stackexchange.com/a/127772/4484
    – GEdgar
    Commented May 5, 2019 at 11:04
  • 2
    By "professor" do you mean a tendured/tenure track position at a university? Commented May 5, 2019 at 21:08
  • Why not? It has been the case for bad, unremarkable students for centuries. And if someone likes the academic life, sometimes they are the best fit at any rate. Commented May 5, 2019 at 22:48

4 Answers 4


Yes of course.

Some PhD’s are really good at research, or they just prefer research.

Others however, like to pass on knowledge and when a student « gets » something they are pleased for them.

So being able to explain concepts to others and remembering or understanding why you found certain concepts difficult and using that experience to help other students can be very rewarding.

The downside is it comes with things like grading... But having clear marking schemes helps with that, both when you mark and when students want feedback.

  • 1
    Besides that a „successful“ professor might need more Skills in doing PR or finding Sponsors or convincing their staff and students to do the work than to be particular good in research or teaching.
    – eckes
    Commented May 6, 2019 at 9:39

Some people are adept at helping other people understand and realize study material and also have new ideas even though them themselves maybe don't have so many "original ideas". There is a big need for teaching professors as well as research professors. Sadly these days seems many professors end up being neither.. just a vessel for acquiring grants and doing administration...


Depends on what your definition of a 'Professor' is. There are some professors who got to their position based on governance, teaching or/and research. In terms of research, I know of big name professors who operate more like a business person, so an outsider would think they are excellent researchers.

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    Yes. Some smart students do realize this and it quite often repels them.. Commented May 6, 2019 at 15:54

As I write this the other answers have missed one essential point, though they give good advice. But I'll note that your skill set isn't fixed at birth. You are what you make yourself.

Your early work is just that: the beginning. It may be good or not and you can do better or worse. That is up to you to a large extent. It matters how you carry on your career. How much you are willing to work with and learn from others can be a big factor. How relentlessly you follow your research ideas is another. How much effort you put in to the other aspects of being a professor. Are you willing to learn how to be a scholarly teacher? Will you do what it takes? Will you always give the same respect that you expect from others?

If you stay in academia, hopefully you get a good position and achieve tenure. Some people take tenure as an opportunity to get lazy (relatively speaking). Others take it as an opportunity to take on higher risk - higher reward projects. That is up to you.

There are lots of things. Some of them you have already practiced and others not so much.

But also note that to be an accomplished professor you don't need to be in the top ranks in every measure. You can focus on one of the key areas as long as you don't neglect the others. You can have the Dean gasp when you announce your retirement forty years after you earned your doctorate. The path is long and winding.

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