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I recently joined a PhD program after accumulating nine years of work experience. My decision to pursue this program was driven by personal ambition, aiming to refine my skills and engage with academia. However, sometimes, I sense a potential misunderstanding (i.e., being overqualified) from the team regarding my experience compared to my peers in the group (nothing negative here at all; I am learning from all of them). While my supervisor and team are very supportive and kind, I want to ensure our relationship remains positive and constructive and they don't assume I know more than required, to not lose any opportunity to learn from them. How can I navigate this situation effectively, ensuring my contributions are valued without causing any sense of insecurity?

Edit After some answers, I have updated the question to avoid misunderstandings due to language barriers, as English is not my first language.

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    I sense a potential insecurity in my supervisor regarding my extensive experience compared to my peers in the group - there may be a bit of potential vagueness to sense here. Could you elaborate?
    – tevemadar
    Feb 15 at 10:02
  • Likely duplicate of academia.stackexchange.com/q/118465/75368
    – Buffy
    Feb 15 at 11:39
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    Could you be more specific about what concerns you? You say your supervisor is supportive and kind. Is this different compared to your peers in the group? What makes you worried that your relationship might not remain positive and constructive -- are they kinder and more supportive with their other students? Or is the problem that they are too kind and supportive, while they challenge their other students, and you want them to challenge you more? Your question currently reads "I have a great supervisor, how do I ensure they remain that way?". Simple, just focus on doing your work well.
    – penelope
    Feb 15 at 13:41
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    I (~10y work experience, 4 in a permanent academic post) am currently supervising a PhD student with 30-35y work experience (outside academia). While I often feel insecure about many aspects of my work (hello imposter syndrome), supervising this PhD student (especially compared to my other students) is something I'm least insecure about. If anything, I feel more insecure about my straight-out-of-Uni PhD students -- these are some of their formative years and a PhD-supervisor relationship is an intense one, any misstep might cause more damage than to a mature student who knows what they want.
    – penelope
    Feb 15 at 13:43
  • @tevemadar I have updated the question, pardon, English is not my native language! Feb 16 at 15:20

4 Answers 4

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I would start by worrying a lot less about imagined insecurities in others and get to work.

Don't treat others like you're superior to them; if you do, it won't be their insecurities that are the problem, it will be that they think you're a jerk.

Nine years in a job is something but not that impressive. Most people accumulate 40 or so years of work by the time they retire if they're lucky enough to do so, and a lot of innovation comes from people with no experience at all until they had an idea.


The answer above was written for a previous version of the question. My guidance for the new version would be in the same direction, but perhaps softened a bit.

I would start by staying humble and realizing that your experience, valuable as it may be to you, is not going to apply in all ways to a different context. In some ways, experience can hurt rather than help, because you're used to patterns and expectations that you need to un-learn to be successful in the new environment.

I do not think your new colleagues will assume that you know things you don't, but if they do, this is probably not anything specific to your expertise. It's more typical for people to assume everyone else knows what they know themselves. If you need more guidance in a specific situation, like someone assumes you are familiar with a particular machine or software tool or database but you are not, say so. You do not need to refer to your past experience when asking for clarification, you only need to be honest about what you do and do not know as it comes up.

I would caution against putting too much focus on your experience. If you bring it up, even if you have good intentions, I think that people will assume you're bringing it up as a humblebrag and it will produce the opposite effect that you are intending. I think most of us have met at least one person in their professional career that seemingly could not help starting each of their sentences with something like, "well, when I was at (famous university)/FAANG/(the White House)..." as if their primary personality trait was a particular job they held in the past. That's not a great way to make friends but is a great way to annoy everyone around you.

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    And the work experience matters a lot. Being a tech at Bell Labs (back in the day) was great prep for a PhD. Many other jobs - not so much.
    – Jon Custer
    Feb 15 at 2:15
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    @bryan you have many improper judgements in your answer. Asking this question nit coming out of vacuum, it's based on my experience, I'm being so considerate and trying to fully engage with the team for collective good!! Feb 15 at 9:08
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    You say this question is based on your experience. Would this be experience with this particular supervisor, or with people in general? You say you sense a "potential" insecurity -- does that mean you have actually observed your supervisor treating you any different to other students in the team? If your supervisor behaves differently towards you, we can try to suggest what to do. If all you have is a bad feeling, not based on anything your supervisor did or said, then it might be you who is making an improper judgement.
    – penelope
    Feb 15 at 13:30
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    @AdhamEnaya I can only answer based on the impressions I got from your post. I don't disbelieve that you're trying and interested in the collective good, but I also see how your language puts the blame on other people even while you claim it's something you want to fix. I'm familiar with this pattern of thinking.
    – Bryan Krause
    Feb 15 at 14:42
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Looking back over the decades...

My incoming graduate class had both fresh university graduates and those who had worked (mainly in engineering positions at, say, IBM or GE) for a while (including more than 9 years). Broadly speaking, those who had worked for a while struggled more with coursework because they were out of practice with the whole lectures/problem sets/exam routine. On the other hand, they knew why they were going to grad school better than the fresh graduates - after all they had given up a well-paying job to go back to school.

On the research side, well, there we were all equal - we all had to learn what it was about, how to do it, and actually get things done. We all struggled at the beginning, even the experienced engineers. Doing PhD research is not doing a regular engineering job.

I will say, aside a few outliers, the experienced folks graduated a bit earlier. This mainly goes back to them knowing why they were in grad school. Particularly those with families focused more on getting to the end versus enjoying the ride so to speak. For example, I knew one student (married, 4 kids) who went home at 5pm every day to have the evening with their family. After the kids went to bed he went and sat in his car in the apartment parking lot to do more work. That way he didn't waste time driving back to the lab, didn't bother the kids trying to sleep, and was close by if there were any issues needing another parent.

Over the years I've hired a number of folks with PhDs or Masters to work in a national lab. Some went straight through, some didn't. I can't say that either experience makes a difference in how they came up to speed on the research requirements. About the only differentiating factor is those with real work experience are initially better at interacting with everyone across all positions. By that I mean working well with the techs and other support staff to get more done. Any difference there does not last long.

So, congratulations, you currently have a good relationship with your advisor. Don't screw it up. Your advisor is likely happy to have somebody with a proven track work of being able to work. But this work (PhD research) is different, and you will have to show you can actually do it.

As an aside, the other students have much to bring to the table as well - you will all struggle at times and the support they can give you (and you give them) will be invaluable. So, don't screw that up either.

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I want to ensure our relationship remains positive and constructive and they don't assume I know more than required, to not lose any opportunity to learn from them.

It depends on the field of course, but the presumption more often encountered is that work experience does not impart specific knowledge or methods that is to be found in the academic study of a topic.

What work experience should offer is higher efficiency in

  • a) combining productively whatever information and knowledge comes your way
  • b) actually collaborating, even with people that you would never choose as your friends, and you are thankful that they are not your relatives
  • c) delivering, come hell or high water.

I undertook my PhD after 20 years of professional experience. To begin with, you can imagine the age difference and the generation gap. There was a certain dissonance, because I was as much a student as everybody else was (meaning I had to study equally hard), but the age (meaning the obvious wrinkles and the heavier eyes), as well as a more self-confident and assertive way of discussing things (due to a) above) created an unavoidable distance. So I let everybody understand that whatever "advantage" (if any) I had, I was willing to share with anybody that asked for it, but I never tried to bridge said distance in a forced "gift-bringing" way, but only bringing questions, declaring (truthfully) my incomplete knowledge, that at the same time signaled a more equal footing.

It worked, at least for me.

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Well I believe with such extensive experience, your concerns should not only be the perceived insecurities of your advisor, but also the chair of the department and dean. Ideally, you should set up a meeting with all of them and explain that while you are so very experienced, you are also willing to be humble, and humor them by allowing them to pretend they have something to teach you. That way nobody feels offended that they cannot possibly have anything to offer to someone of your heightened status.

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    I'm not sure why this question has attracted such harsh answers. It certainly could be that OP has delusions of grandeur, but it does not seem impossible that the advisor indeed feels at least awkward about being OP's "boss," given that OP in many other contexts would be a peer.
    – cag51
    Feb 16 at 2:26
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    My answer was very clearly tongue-in-cheek. However, the nature of the question is rather silly. OP states they have a good relationship, then begins to presume insecurities, based on what, I am not sure. From my experience as a student, postdoc, and for a while now, PI. The best thing you can do to maintain a good relationship is act accordingly within the context of your situation. You are now a grad student just like everyone else. Everyone brings valuable background and experience, whether it is from industry, or perhaps a different undergrad program, different country, etc...
    – R1NaNo
    Feb 16 at 14:10
  • I should say that anecdotally, my two worst performing graduate students have been my mature students. I really value(d) their background and tried to set them up to succeed, but having been out of the student mindset for so long, they struggle(d) with the academic side of academia. It's not just about performing lab tasks. One had to master out because they underperformed on their courses, one I managed to help through by the narrowest of margins.... and I get it, they have families, other obligations, and it's been nearly a decade since they last cracked open a book to study.
    – R1NaNo
    Feb 16 at 14:14

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