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I am currently a first-year Ph.D. student taking a course sequence with my Ph.D. advisor. The first class of the sequence went really well, however, the second class is not going as well. The most notable instance is I copied down a problem incorrectly from the homework prompt. This is the first time in my life I have ever done so, and I was extremely embarrassed about it. An embarrassing instance outside of the class was during a one-on-one discussion. He asked me a question, and I froze and could not think correctly, and said a factually incorrect thing. With the combination of these things, I am beginning to worry my advisor thinks I am stupid, and thus not cut out for a Ph.D. I think one aspect of why I am so nervous around him is he's extremely famous and I think that gets to me.

Anyway, I was curious if anyone had suggestions on how to proceed with any of the two instances I mentioned to help me improve my situation.

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If that's the first time you've copied a problem down incorrectly, I'd bet you're the type of student whose conscientious work is obvious to your advisor and other professors in your department (whom you should also be developing relationships with, even at this early stage, btw). Also, keep in mind that admissions committees (especially in departments that can attract "famous" professors) don't casually accept students; if you weren't cut out for it, you probably wouldn't be there to begin with.

In any case, no reasonable advisor would expect a first-year student to get every fact right or never make mistakes. In the unlikely case your advisor does happen to have those expectations and/or does think, based on two inconsequential mistakes, that you're not cut out for the program, you have plenty of time to find a new advisor, which is not at all unusual. More importantly, it sounds like you may be assuming the advisor thinks these things, since you don't mention any specific reaction he had that indicates as much. But even if he did give some feedback or correction, keep in mind that giving feedback and critique is what they're there for, and receiving that critique and advice is what you're there for. It's crucial for survival in grad school that students not take criticism personally—after all, if you're planning to be an academic at least, proposing some idea and having other people critique it is pretty much what you'll be doing for the rest of your career. If your advisor did give some clear indication he's displeased with your progress, you might consider explaining the circumstances or somehow remediating the situation—but if there wasn't an explicit indication (and even if there was) he's probably forgotten about the whole thing by now. You're likely better off just keeping on with the hard work and reminding yourself as often as you can that you belong there and that all grad students who aren't egomaniacs are constantly wracked with self-doubt and that you're probably doing just fine.

But here's the most important thing, which I don't think most grad students (of which I am one) realize soon enough*: the professors are there because they want to teach students! If you showed up and knew every single thing perfectly before your first year was over, their lives would be pointless (slight exaggeration, but still). Being a professor is about teaching people things they didn't know before and guiding students in their acquisition of knowledge, so don't feel bad when that occasionally happens. A good advisor will genuinely enjoy feeling like they're actually contributing to your development from student to colleague, and your making mistakes early on is part of that process.


*I didn't figure it out on my own either; I was lucky that someone very wise told me this when I was distraught after my first teaching evaluation (which in retrospect was actually full of constructive feedback that I took as harsh criticism simply because it included room to improve).

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I'm also a first year PhD student so I get the pressure to feel impressive to your advisor. That having been said, I think the best advice is to try not to take your small mistakes too seriously. Everybody freezes and everybody misses homework questions. As long as you're putting in the effort (and if these mistakes are bothering you enough to ask about them on stack exchange, I bet you're the hard working type) you're advisor is going to see it after a little while.

In short - try not to be too critical of yourself, I really doubt your advisor thinks you're a bad student because of them. If not already, in time your advisor will recognize your strengths and see you're a valuable student. Just be patient and keep the faith.

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Take responsibility and move on.

You cannot do anything to change what has happened in the past, but you can learn from what has happened. If your advisor chooses to dwell on what has already happened rather than evaluate you based on your current progress, you might consider giving less weight to your advisor’s opinion since they are not assessing you with relevant and current data.

If you feel is is helpful, you could offer an explanation or apology for your errors. And if your advisor asks about the situation, you should talk about it. But unless this awkwardness is impeding your work with your advisor, I doubt it is necessary.


Embarrassing things happen all the time. I’ve blanked on factual questions in areas that I know really well, and I personally have evaluated it as being nervous on my part. Since then, I’ve tried different strategies to prepare better for meetings so I’m not caught off guard. Was it embarrassing? Absolutely. I’m sure my advisor found it odd and supplied his own narrative for why it happened. Take responsibility and move on.

I’ve also made mistakes in copying information and have had a misunderstanding based on my lack of proofreading. This is usually solved with a remark to the effect of “Looks like I copied that wrong, I’ll make a note to fix it on my own time.” Take responsibility and move on.

Both of these situations were embarrassing, but I hope they demonstrate that 1) you are not alone in not being a perfect person and 2) they are not career-devastating mistakes that color your advisor’s opinion of you as a good student.

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