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I will be starting a position as an assistant professor shortly and I have recently received applications from PhD students who in my honest assessment are likely a bit smarter and more talented than me. There is a decent chance I will be in a position to advise such students which I find intimidating. I fear my students will soon find out I am not who I appear on paper and will soon lose respect for me and either run off to be advised by other professors, or we will end up having a very difficult relationship. I would appreciate some advice on how I can possibly advise such students, especially on long-time scales of 6 years.

I also do not believe this to be imposter syndrome. While I believe I am past the bar to be an assistant professor at my university and deserve to be there, it has become evident to me that professors are not necessarily smarter than all their students. In my case, I fear there may be quite a large difference between me and my students and I wonder how other professors do it!

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    How did you get your position? Becoming an assistant professor is not easy, and you probably have proved yourself quite a bit to be offered such a position. Why do you think you are "not who you appear to be on paper". Might this be a case of imposter syndrome?
    – Sursula
    Oct 9, 2023 at 12:17
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    Not sure how helpful this is but: even if, considering the worst case scenario, your students have nothing to gain from you from a technical perspective, your knowledge regarding the 'hidden curriculum' of academia, your mentorship and your academic network are still very useful to them.
    – justauser
    Oct 9, 2023 at 12:22
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    "I do believe myself deserving of the job." "I fear my students will soon find out I am not who I appear on paper" These two statements seem to be in contradiction. Who you are "on paper" is a person with the abilities normally associated with whatever your job title is ("assistant professor at university X"), not a person "smarter" than every conceivable PhD student that you might encounter. If you don't have those abilities, then that might indeed be a problem, but in that case it's a problem that goes beyond dealing with PhD students specifically. Oct 9, 2023 at 12:35
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    Wait until you have a child that you are sure is smarter than you. Definitely an interesting experience ;-) Oct 9, 2023 at 21:13
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    Something to think about: If teachers could do nothing for those who seem in many ways to be more advanced/capable/smarter than they are, that would seem to be an existential crisis for teaching as a profession. We hope that our students will surpass us. Being able to teach those who are beyond your own abilities is to me a quintessential skill of teaching. Oct 10, 2023 at 2:10

11 Answers 11

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How do professors advise PhD students that are smarter than them?

Normally: very, very happily. These students tend to not cause much work, and show potential for greatness (which, in one way or another, rubs off positively on the advisor).

Being a good researcher is more than just being smart - some students are very clever, some are detail-oriented and careful, some are exceptionally hard-working, some write very well, and some have awesome ideas. You also will have these characteristics to varying degrees. Yes, any given student may outperform you in one or multiple of these dimensions, but it's unlikely that they are better than you in all of them (you are a professor at a research university after all). And beyond that there is one characteristic where you almost certainly outperform all of your students - experience. You have seen more projects (successful and failed ones), you have submitted more projects, you know what reviewers value / do not value, you know the PhD process etc. If a student, even a particularly clever one, believes they have nothing to learn from you they are almost certainly mistaken.

Overall, what you should do with students that are smarter than you is the same as with any other student - find out what aspect of their thesis work / career they are struggling with, and help them with that. If they are very smart that's just one less thing to worry about.

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    (+1) especially for: any given student may outperform you in one or multiple of these dimensions, but it's unlikely that they are better than you in all of them Oct 9, 2023 at 14:59
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    This is an excellent answer. Being a professor (or graduate student) is not only about being smart, but about so much more. You don't have to be better than a student in all of them to be a good adviser. In fact, perhaps seeing yourself as "team" with your student is a good perspective, where everyone brings to the table different skills (and different amounts of time -- something you can definitely not compete with your students with). Oct 9, 2023 at 19:46
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    Experience counts, and so does reputation and people you know. Your student can't go up to a random professor and just pick their brains, but you probably can with some of them.
    – Nelson
    Oct 10, 2023 at 0:35
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    @Nelson Interestingly, the "superpower" of one of my previous students was that he literally could get to talking with basically anybody, in any context. I think his network was larger than mine no more than two years into his PhD.
    – xLeitix
    Oct 10, 2023 at 6:58
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    +1 "very very happily". I have advised very bright students, and not-so-bright ones. For me, it was much more work in the non-so-bright cases.
    – GEdgar
    Oct 10, 2023 at 15:26
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First, the situation is entirely normal. All of us have faced it (well, nearly all, anyway). You give them the best advice you can. You encourage them. You share with them. Being "smarter" than you leaves them still untrained. They also need to learn to avoid pitfalls and things like burnout. When the time comes do what you can to jumpstart their careers.

You are wise to recognize this early. Some people, with evidence from some questions here, would try to denigrate such students, letting personal pride get in the way of your guidance. I suspect that you will avoid that.

Back before retirement, the doctoral program I taught in tried to insist that students use first names for faculty. The idea was to help the students think of themselves a colleagues, not subordinates. Some of them, from traditional societies and backgrounds, resisted this, but we were mostly successful. I've had students, myself, with more potential than I exhibited. That is natural, expected, and desirable.

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Even the greatest athletes need coaches, and training plans. The best sports teams need managers to decide team tactics and strategies, to coordinate people working together.

The same is true of academics. You don't need to be smarter than someone to be a be a good coach and mentor.

Someone in the comments above said that academia isn't just about being smart. I'd say it's not even mostly about being smart. It's often said that a PhD is a test of stubbornness rather than intellegence.

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    So true. And the best coaches are/were not necessarily the best athletes and vice versa.
    – BioBrains
    Oct 10, 2023 at 12:30
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I have had the privilege to have plenty of students that are 'smarter' than me. I put the smart in quotes because smartness has several dimensions as someone said above @xLeitix. A student can be smart at coming up with ideas, but poorer in execution. Or smart in proofs but poorer in writing.

There will be occasions when students are very smart but also know and feel that they are very smart. Sometimes they can be antagonistic, condescending, and push your buttons. (Hence they can be difficult to manage. The term manage here refers to situations where funding of the student originates from a project and hence some deliverables, engaging with project members are required.) I don't think I have the golden solution for this rare case, and whilst I will advocate for patience and calm, advisors are humans afterall.

But no matter I close by saying that I do hope that all students are smarter in their research than myself. It is after all their phd. We are not captains of the PhD boat. They are. They are the captains, the mechanic, the engine, the navigator. At best in the beginning we are a map, and then gradually as they develop their understanding of the field and science a compass which gets faultier and faultier.

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    I think I was one of those difficult, smartass students and the relationship with my advisor got really difficult. One advice I would give, do not stop asking questions about your student's research. No matter how dumb or basic the question is for your student, you are not wasting time by asking it but by not asking it.
    – tom
    Oct 11, 2023 at 3:20
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I would probably spend more time thinking about what it means to be a smart professor than what it means to be a smart graduate student. You are not a graduate student anymore. You might have been much less talented as a student, but could be much more talented as an advisor.

In the normal working world, project managers often stay as project managers and workers stay as workers. This is because being a manager is often just a totally different skill set, and usually needs more soft skills and less technical ability. Hiring the most talented worker to be the boss is often considered to be a poor choice in general.

In my experience, the skillsets for success in graduate school is completely different than success as a professor. So much so that that I would usually put my money betting on the success of a less typically successful graduate student in their performance as an advisor.

Grad student success is mostly hard work and a little bit of talent and luck. I've seen a lot of professors who when they were students were really technically talented but we're really just following the orders of their advisor. They get a lot of papers as a student, and then we're totally clueless about coming up with their own ideas and direction. Usually they just try to do research in exactly what they did as a graduate student with one or two extra complications.

Professor success is I think more flexible. Being a good boss and high charisma with no technical talent is a very viable strategy, and is often the most successful (I've seen this mostly in experimental groups but also sometimes for theorists). High technical ability professors can also be successful but usually have much smaller groups as the professor is often less able to offload the work, since he's the true talent.

Also, big picture understanding and gut feelings are much more important at a higher level in my opinion.

If you're particularly worried about your technical ability, just try to collaborate with some professors that can help out in the ways you can't. You can have your students go visit other professors and go on lots of conferences. (And in the end your work is sort of managing this web of connections.)

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Different roles, different skills

Even if you both are in the exact same subfield of science, you'll have a different job role and a different skill set needed. Students write research papers, professors write grant proposals.

Advising a PhD student doesn't require you to be more knowledgeable in their chosen topic than they are, it is pretty expected that at least by the time of graduation they'll know more about their thesis topic than anyone else including yourself. Advising a PhD student requires you to assist then with the process of research and research communication, interaction with other researchers and institutions, sometimes handling employment and funding issues, and often handling how the publication process works.

They may be much more capable than you in your field of science - that's great, let them be. You're there to provide your experience on how to best apply their smartness and share it with the general scientific community.

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It's the easiest thing there is, usually (but not always). Let them work. Be there if they need you. Give them good advice from time to time. Keep them focused. Make sure they finish projects. And keep in mind that nobody is good at everything. At times they will need your help. And encouragement.

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Don't worry - go talk to a down-to-earth business management professor and they will tell you that those who teach and manage are NOT the true "wizards" - they are the ones who can understand all aspects of the work at hand, along with the resources involved, and how to make them properly function.

They need to learn how to LEARN - ie: you don't always need to teach them the skill, you need to teach them how to hone their skill. When I went to college for Comp Sci I already knew computing/programming. The students at the top of the class ALREADY know some of the stuff before taking the class.

What they really need are additional resources, ways to understand in-depth issues that are uncommon and ways to better network with other entities for better outcomes. You are never supposed to be the end, simply the means, helping to connect the dots.

The professors I had who tried to put things in concrete terms rather than abstract got hassles anyway. OK I got two wrong on the test, my hand is raised and my 142 IQ will prove you wrong every time. It is good to be wrong, it is how we learn and grow.

Be sure to be humble, and curb any ego. If you find they are more intelligent than you then ask them to work together with you on content for coursework as some sort of extra credit.

A racecar driver doesn't need to learn to drive from the most competent driver in the world they just need one who feels competent in what is being taught.

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It is a fantastic joy to see people you advise or mentor grow in ways you may not have anticipated. This often happens because you find these people are "smarter" than you. Your responsibility is to make sure these people can excel and continue to excel beyond expectations, for example give them problems you think you cannot solve yourself, or where you got stuck. If you can do that, then you are very "smart" as well.

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The PhD program is not an IQ competition, it is a training program for researchers.

You are a researcher who has completed many years of training and can give your students advice from your expertise. My advisor taught me how to produce novel research and be a good writer and reviewer. These are skills that need to be practiced regardless of how smart you are.

I also want to add that even if these students have better credentials than you, it doesn't imply anything on your intelligence or theirs.

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Out of pure probability, half of the students are smarter than their advisors (or elementary school teachers, for that matter). Otherwise, we will have to assume that the humanity, or at least the particular scientific field, gets less and less smart with time (the available data, at least in regard to the whole humanity, does not support this).

Being a teacher/professor/etc is not a matter of smartness, it is a matter of skill set and knowledge. Being a good professor is a complex thing and no personal trait dominates the success rate. Smart students learn these things intuitively at early age so no problem here.

p.s. I am in a positiomn to routinely use a variety of services from people whose entire work I can do way better than them. So I did in academia, long ago. This is normal as well.

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