I am a young grad student, also having the luck to be collaborating a bit with a (rather) big shot. Of course, it would be nice if he gets a good impression of me for the future, as he could probably be an excellent reference when it comes to finding jobs later. But probably, the same discussion applies to any senior researcher you're working with.

Now, the first logical thing would be to work very hard thinking outside the box on problems, using creative, a bit unconformistic approaches in order to try proving that my intelligence and deep understanding of the topic are beyond average.

The other thing is just nicely executing the suggestions by him and the other collaborators, being an efficient, obedient employee outside the spotlights, such that his 'factory runs smoothly'.

On the one hand, the second possibility does not seem to really allow distinguishing myself; on the other hand; the first possibility may come across as a bit annoying by trying too hard to impress;also it is apparently often a good idea to play a bit dumber than you really are ('Never outshine the master') .

To be clear, I'm quite sure I'm in the end still far weaker than him, but I can spend more time thinking on the same problems.

A concrete example: if he suggest something and I've thought of that myself before, should I tell so?

  • 1
    There is not a single type of person in the world, and this is not limited to professors - senior or not. What is pleasant to some is irritating to others. Everyone generally likes you to do good work that is useful and valuable to them, but they vary in their personal style, preference for social distance, degree of expected independence, defensiveness, etc. If one single thing worked for everyone, life sure would be a lot simpler - but that just isn't the way people are.
    – BrianH
    Jun 4 '19 at 19:18
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    Probably being creative and thinking outside the box to_solve_problems will be more "impressive" than trying to be ostentatiously "creative" to "impress". The latter may result in your looking like a fool, instead. Jun 4 '19 at 19:50
  • The unhelpful but honest answer is that a professor is most impressed by how closely you conform to whatever he imagines a "good student" to be. Jun 4 '19 at 21:37
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    Most people, but especially experienced professors, will detect attempts to prove "that my intelligence and deep understanding of the topic are beyond average.", and be unimpressed. As @paulgarrett suggests, you would be better off applying your best efforts to solving problems. Jun 5 '19 at 4:09
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    Neither. Don't show off, and don't play dumb. Just do good work.
    – JeffE
    Jun 5 '19 at 14:35

These are not mutually exclusive, actually. The correct aphorism should be "Never outshine the master if he is a jerk".

I've seldom been happier than when one of my students goes on to surpass me. I know of a few and I suspect there are others. Cool.

Don't be arrogant, though. Wisdom and arrogance aren't especially compatible.

The movie "Good Will Hunting" is an object lesson of a professor who can't handle the presence of a brilliant student.

But if students don't outshine their "masters" then humanity never advances. If it weren't common at places like MIT and Cambridge for students to go beyond their doctoral advisors then scholarship could never go forward, only backward.

So, do good work, help others, be fair, explain carefully, take advice, accept honest criticism, do better work. Ask for help when you need it, but do due diligence first in your study.

And, say "hi" to people and show an interest, volunteer a bit of time and effort occasionally. And, do even better work.

My personal secret, though I didn't recognize it at the time, was: ask a lot of questions - good questions. Listen to the answers.

And after you finish your degree and move on to a fantastic job and are building a great career, don't forget to go back and thank your old mentor, in person, for starting you on the path.


As noted, these are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, someone coming up with their own ideas and showing a deep insight into the topic often is what makes "the factory run smoothly" because I don't have to spoonfeed them Step N+1 in their project at every meeting.

if he suggest something and I've thought of that myself before, should I tell so?

Do you have thoughts on it? "I thought of that myself" isn't impressive, and isn't helpful. "Yeah, I thought about that recently, and have been tooling around with an implementation of it. What do you think about $Thing" is.

So should you be smart or be a pleasant co-worker?

The answer is "Yes."

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    Indeed. I think that novices too often think that "the system", and "old people", is/are so naive that they can easily be gamed... by novices!?!?! Better to be aware that the old people are just like you but with decades more experience... so maybe not so easy to "game"? "Doing the work, and very well" is the best way. Jun 4 '19 at 21:31

I don't see a trade-off between the two strategies, so the answer is: both. However, my hunch is that you are too concerned with making an impression. This can become awkward or even annoying. Try to focus on the work you're doing, and don't worry about brownie points. If your work is good, it should be acknowledged, and your present insecurity will dissipate.

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