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During my academic studies, I have always been ambitious in pursuing academic research with no luck. I have not gotten along with any of the professors whom I attempted to set up an advisor-advisee relationship with. This was not due to my lack of knowledge or incapability because they acknowledged my competency many times.

I have started to think that they were too lazy to adjust to my eagerness and wanted to take it easy. Maybe they thought that I will be a burden for them. Also, I get the impression that they hate me, because of the disgust they seem to exhibit when I talk about the work of leading researchers in the field. If I do not follow or discuss the leading researchers work how can I contribute to the field?

Please give me some advice on ego problems of academics, and how to politely show them that their research is inferior without making them hate me.

I am very respectful. But my former professor asked me if I do not like his work. I criticized the professor's work, and professor could not tolerate to it. If I was wrong prof could have told me the true value of the work, instead he stayed quiet and took revenge on me. I always choose wrong persons - I can't recognize good and bad people in my relationships. My love life is also a disaster. Always credit bad ones in every aspect of life.

I am in a 3rd world country in the Middle East. Here, finding someone with an inferior work is like finding a water in a desert. My intention is using them for future Ph.D admissions in the western world. I am interested in their connections and network. But, they hide it from me, they want me to stay with them forever, and then they hate me. They are usually western educated PhDs - from the ones that return back and usually produce low-quality papers.

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    I'm not sure I have an answer, but working with someone whose work you find inferior can't be helping matters. – Mad Jack Jun 5 '15 at 1:10
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    From what you write, it looks like you might need to focus less on the advisor's ego and more on your own. – Miguel Jun 5 '15 at 6:09
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    "My intention is using them for [...]"... you know, the ONLY thing I appreciate in your writing is your honesty. – Mehrdad Jun 5 '15 at 8:08
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    Look at it this way. Imagine yourself as a professor. Now imagine a student wants you to be their advisor. Say this student clearly thinks your work is inferior. Say the student wants to use your network to make contact with other potential advisors, because they feel they and their ambition are too good for you. Would you be likely to put the time and effort required of an advisee relationship into working with this student? – LindaJeanne Jun 5 '15 at 17:28
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    Looking at this 'question', I see a rant which I can describe this way. I am so amazing and everyone else sucks so much. Why do all the people whom I do not like and do not hide my disappointment do not like me if I am so thoughtful and amazing? – Salvador Dali Jun 5 '15 at 22:50

13 Answers 13

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Back when I was in grad school and everybody I knew lived with roommates due to housing costs, some sets of roommates got along well and some had serious problems sharing space with one another. Over time, I noticed that while most people had mostly decent experiences, there were certain people who I knew who always seemed to end up with nightmarish roommates. The same way, while most people seemed to have their share of ups and downs in their love life, certain people always seemed to end up with nightmarish relationships.

Was it just bad luck or a bad environment? Generally not: when a person has an unusually long string of failed relationships, usually that person is somehow involved in creating their luck.

I tell this by way of suggesting that you may want to reflect on your own choices here. Are you poisoning the relationships with your professors by holding a contemptuous attitude towards them? Is your ambition somehow leading you toward selecting professors who are incompatible with you? Is it something else entirely?

It's impossible for we strangers on the internet to tell what's really going on for you. It is certain, however, that every failed advisor/advisee relationship that you have been involved with has at least one thing in common: you. It's worth reflecting on that and seeing if you can figure out something that you can change in your own attitudes that might make it easier for the next one to be better.

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    @academicwasteland : I do not mean to be rude but it seems you have a tendency to read between the lines. From your comments above, it seems you didn't spend even a few minutes to really understand what was written in that answer. So my only suggestion is to 1) take a deep breath 2) re-read the answer as slowly as you can and 3) ponder over it. Perhaps you will see something different. – jayann Jun 5 '15 at 3:09
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    Self-serving bias: "The bias in which individuals tend to ascribe success to their own abilities and efforts, but ascribe failure to external factors" – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Jun 5 '15 at 7:18
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    There is only one way this answer could be improved: by re-writing it in yodaspeak. – Moriarty Jun 5 '15 at 12:06
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    Nice answer. But I think it also might be the culture difference. We have a post doc from Middle East who is exactly like this. – Troy Woo Jun 7 '15 at 9:39
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    @Moriarty In grad school I was, roommates had we. Hmm. Problems some had. Hard was sharing. Nightmare roommates some had. Again and again. Nightmare roommates they were! Strong is the projection of blame in them. Yes. Hmm. – user10948 Jun 8 '15 at 21:01
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Generally, you get back from a relationship what you put into it. In your next attempt at a student-advisor relationship, I suggest concentrating on two questions:

  1. What can I learn from the advisor?
  2. What can I do to help the advisor and the advisor's other students?

You are dealing with intelligent people who typically have more life experience than you, have met more people than you have. They probably know how you think of them.

Suppose you met someone who believed themself superior to you and who intended to use you only to get access to your contacts and network. Would you like that person? Want to help them?

If you go in with a wish to learn and help, appropriate to the relationship between student and advisor, you are more likely to have a positive experience.

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Not so much an answer as a suggestion:

There are (at least) two types of students who think they are right and the professor is wrong: those who have done something correct beyond what they professor can get their head round, and those who are so clueless the professor cannot communicate to them why they are wrong.

I have no way of knowing if this applies in your case, but I would suggest at least considering whether it's possible you fall into the second category. Even if the answer is 'no', the process itself may help you.

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    As a student that often fell into the first category, it was interesting to navigate professors who had never run into students like me. Most of those relationships went poorly. However, a good 2/3 of my Professors liked me enough that they were eager to write me recommendations. So, from my perspective either the OP is in the second category, or doesn't have the tact to pull off being in the first category. – Rick Jun 8 '15 at 17:06
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    @Rick I think perhaps there is a third option: the OP is trolling. Certainly this question has triggered a strong reaction and a lot of attention. – Jessica B Jun 8 '15 at 21:17
  • @Rick There are also professors unwilling to take the time to wrap their head around what you are saying... – Jacob Murray Wakem Mar 28 '17 at 4:17
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Of course, I may be wrong (note my attitude here!), but here are some insights of mine, based on my reading and interpreting your question. Firstly, it seems to me that your ambitions (and, by the way, I am rather ambitious as well) cloud your judgement and, thus, an objective professional assessment of both yourself and your advisors, who are essentially your colleagues.

Secondly, your knowledge and capabilities in general do not automatically imply that the work of your advisors or other colleagues is inferior - it is all a matter of opinions and, more importantly, perspectives. Just because you have a particular opinion (via your subjective "lens" or even objective perspective) on a subject, it doesn't mean that you are right and they are wrong (and vice versa!). It is worth repeating: most things in research (and in life, for that matter) are matters of perspective. Plus, a scholar IMHO should be modest/humble and open to other opinions. The key phrase in that regard is being tolerant. You can pursue your own opinions and agenda, but do so in a diplomatic way, without hurting others' feelings and ego and, thus, damaging professional relationships. In particular, when presenting your "correct" views on the subject, position them not against others', but rather as an alternative. You can use various verbal approaches to frame your views as alternative. For example: "what do you think about ...?" or "I was thinking about different approach ...?" or similar. This approach that I've just described above is very much applicable not only to your own views, but to the work of "leading researchers in the field" - of course, your should follow and mention it, but downplay the "leading" part (which, by the way, often is a very subjective aspect) and concentrate on ideas themselves.

Thirdly, unless the relationships you're talking about are too damaged, try to repair them by using the approaches I recommend above. If you feel that it is impossible, consider changing your advisors and apply the being-humble-and-tolerant approach to new professional relationships.

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    The formatting of this post is really distracting. – Reid Jun 6 '15 at 20:56
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    OK, well, I've edited it to my liking, so readers can decide whose version they prefer. For what it's worth, I like your answer, just not the typesetting. – Reid Jun 6 '15 at 21:21
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    @Reid: Looks good. I just wanted to pay attention to specific aspects, hence slightly larger amount of emphasis. Not a huge difference, though. I'm glad that you liked the answer itself - that's what matters most. – Aleksandr Blekh Jun 6 '15 at 21:46
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    @Reid: Thanks for posting that; your version is much easier to read. – ruakh Jun 6 '15 at 22:42
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    7-10 is more than enough. You only need four to pass a suggested edit! (Unless the OP gets involved). – Lightness Races in Orbit Jun 7 '15 at 21:46
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There hasn't been a lot of discussion about the issue of contacts and networking, so I'd like to take a moment to address that issue in particular.

A network of colleagues, mentors, and collaborators is fundamental for the success of the modern academician. That network is cultivated over time, but is based on both competency and respect. If you do something to violate someone else's trust, you poison your relationship with that person, perhaps irreparably.

As an example, I know of several long-standing "relationships" that have soured when faculty members tried to send unqualified graduate students to other groups to work as postdocs, knowing that things probably weren't going to work out, but not saying anything in advance to the other advisors. As a result of this, how can the receiving graduate student trust anything the old advisor has to say? That poisons the well.

Another way to cause problems within your personal network is to introduce into it someone who's going to cause more problems than help you. Someone who has a bad attitude and is unpleasant to work with is one of the big things to avoid, because you just make your life (and everyone else's) that much more difficult. (How do your advisors know, for instance, that you won't treat their colleagues the same way you do them?)

Until you give an advisor reason to believe that you won't cause more trouble than you will be helpful, they're simply not going to trust you, and therefore they almost certainly won't take the time to take advantage of their connections to help you out.

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It sounds as though you enjoy comparing the work of your supervisors to the work of leading researchers in the field, and talking to them about the inferiority of their work.

They do not enjoy this. They signal to you their lack of enjoyment by expressing disgust, and you've noticed that signal but carry on anyway. This happens repeatedly. They don't wish to spend their time defending their work to someone who is in their eyes an obnoxious novice, and who is in any case applying an irrelevant standard. Almost everyone is inferior (in some sense) to the leading researchers in their field, that's what "leading" means. There's no need to bang on about it.

If you have no respect for their work then you should not have applied to work with them in the first place. They'd rather have a student who is enthusiastic about what they do, who wants to contribute to it, than someone who spends his time criticising them, and who wants to talk about how much he prefers other people.

Either apply to work with someone you respect, or consider very carefully whether you enjoy these discussions so much that you prefer alienating supervisors rather than give up criticising them in this way.

Please give me some advice on ego problems of academics

It's very easy, through ego, to think that your opinion is the only important one, and that everyone you meet has an obligation to listen to it and either accept it or else disprove it to your satisfaction. Learn from these experiences that this is not true, and that's why it's an ego problem for you. Other people do not share your high opinion of yourself, and they're perfectly able to show you the door instead of put up with it.

how to politely show them that their research is inferior without making them hate me.

They know what their research is, and they know what the leaders in the field are doing. It is not polite to presume that they'll benefit from you showing them your views on the matter. However unremarkable their research record is, yours is even less remarkable, and that's how it's going to stay unless you can drop the ego. If you apply to work with someone, work with them, don't try to explain to them how you think working with them isn't worthwhile.

You say that your goal is to get contacts and recommendations. By no means am I certain that this is best done cynically, but if that's the route you're taking then stick to the goal. Wanting these people to agree with you is ego, and it's distracting you from your goal. Try agreeing with them, you'll get a different response.

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You can ask your former supervisors what they thought of your collaboration. Ask it in an open, non-offensive way. Do not go into arguments, but write down their answers as verbatim as possible. Then re-read the answers at home, and try to conclude what the most important message is.

  • Given the lack of data about why this fellow keeps getting moved on, this is the best answer. – EleventhDoctor Jun 5 '15 at 8:15
  • It is also relevant to why the OP is not getting networking introductions. If a supervisor had some problem with the collaboration they would not want to pass that problem on to their friends and acquaintances. My answer was based on the assumption that the issue is supervisors picking up the OP's attitude to them, but it could be something else. – Patricia Shanahan Jun 5 '15 at 12:00
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I have started to think that they were too lazy to adjust my eagerness and wanted to take it easy.

There is an old good saying "Think big but take baby steps". Ambition is a good thing, but only when your ability can afford it.

If you consider research of your adviser(s) easy, their papers low-quality. Can you do similar research, write the same quality papers? If yes, start by doing it. Having low-quality papers is still better than having no papers. Experience of writing (low-quality) papers can also help you to write better papers. Take baby steps.

Leading researchers are great. But less-known researchers also deserves to be respected. The fact that they are in a position that you are dreaming to reach (western educated PhD) means there are something you can learn from them (if you really want to learn).

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Could not get along with any advisor, is it ego?

In short, yes...first and foremost, yours. Most of the problems we experience in relationships originate in ourselves, our attitude toward the outside world. The attitudes of others toward us are but a consequence, a reflection of this. This is a difficult concept to accept for those of us brought up in the Western philosophical empirical tradition, which looks for causes in the external 'objective reality' (which still turns out to be in the eye of the beholder).

In contrast, the Eastern philosophical tradition begins with the internal, subjective self.1,2 In this tradition, questions of the "why is this happening to me" type have a default answer: because I have done something to deserve this. The cause is invariably within. The external impact that we suffer (or enjoy) as a result is merely a natural consequence of our own ego-driven choices. I choose to use this perspective to address questions concerning relationships and attitudes, because in my experience this perspective has proven vastly more effective in achieving the desired positive change, or at least in providing a proven recipe for it.

How to politely show them that their research is inferior without making them hate me

This is like saying, "can you tell me how to politely tell people their looks are inferior, without making them hate me."

Lets think about it. How many examples do you know when pointing out others' deficiencies did not undermine one's relationship with them? Self-esteem is a very fragile asset which people naturally seek to protect from harm. When they detect possible threats to the integrity of this asset, they naturally act to remove the threat. Basic psychology. Typical results are either avoidance or confrontation. Hardly the recipe for making the world a better place!

There are certainly ways to talk about research without harming egos. EVERY program of academic research has flaws. There are no perfect theories, every theory is only as strong as its weakest claim, methodological step, or piece of evidence. Academics aren't dumb. They have a good grasp of the field and more often than not, realize (if only privately) the limitations of their research. What they definitely do not need is anyone rubbing their nose in these issues.

Surely there must be ways to manifest your brilliance in ways other than this. It is a matter of consciously reorienting your focus and attention, from the negative to the positive. Leave the negative and the weaknesses to others to sort out. Focus on what your professors do right, find what in their experience, wisdom, or skills is worthy of respect. You might have to try harder with some than with others, but everyone possesses such qualities and characteristics.

Thus, it is a matter of personal choice. What do you choose to concentrate on in your interaction with this person? Making one choice will result in straining of the relationship. Making another choice will result in the growth of professional collaboration. Cause and effect. But the chain reaction of change for the better must begin with you. Waiting for others to change is only wasting time. One must always begin with oneself.

How you react and what you point out in others, inevitably comes back as either a blessing or a punishment. If looking back, you see more punishment than blessing from your interaction with advisors, what has to change here? Only one thing: the intent and purpose with which you approach the interaction.

So find the things you can appreciate and respect in others, and cultivate these aspects in your perception of these individuals as scholars, colleagues, and your advisors. Leave the deficiencies for them to sort out on their own. Trust they have the wherewithal for that. If you are not seeing it happening, then there must be reasons.

The role of an advisee is first and foremost the role of a student. Appreciate the opportunities to learn and gain experience, which advisors can provide for you. If critical reflection reveals weak points, make a mental note, learn from their mistakes, but it is not your place or your responsibility to blow the whistle on them. As your own experience shows, doing so bring nothing good. So, learn from your own past experience, and work on changing your perspective during interaction with other academics.

The problem is not all these other people, the problem is deficiency in understanding of how to interact with them in a positive and productive way.

Arrogance comes from disrespect, and disrespect comes from insecurity. A useful exercise is to ask yourself, "What am I compensating for by not being nice to people?"

Start by working on yourself to cultivate humbleness, respect, and kindness toward others, and the solution will emerge.

If you don't want to be knocked off the ship, don't rock the boat.

Give them the benefit of the doubt and instead, train your critical eye (which apparently you have perfected) on yourself, first and foremost. This is a difficult and unpleasant exercise, but if you try it earnestly, it will pay dividends and make you a more sensitive and positive human being. These effects will extend far beyond the professional relationships, and you will see positive transformations in your relationships with relatives, partners, friends, and complete strangers.

Changing oneself is difficult. But it is the only way to see guaranteed progress. You seem to possess the reflective capacity to accomplish this. The very fact that you asked this question suggests that you might suspect that you are doing something wrong. This is the first step in the right direction. Good luck!

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    I would be less offended by someone telling me my looks are inferior than by someone telling me my computer programming is inferior. – Patricia Shanahan Jun 7 '15 at 14:42
  • "In contrast, the Eastern philosophical tradition begins with the internal, subjective self. In this tradition, questions of the "why is this happening to me" type have a default answer: because I have done something to deserve this. The cause is invariably within." This sounds rather close to "blame the victim". Eastern philosophy citation required, please. – Faheem Mitha Jun 8 '15 at 3:54
  • @PeteL.Clark, and Patricia - change makes sense and post has been revised, thank you for your feedback. However, I would note that the content of this forum is based on individual perspectives. If your views differ, that is not reason enough to request that others' responses be changed to match it. – A.S Jun 8 '15 at 14:04
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Often big names in a field are the big name because their work represents a well established status quo.

The "small names" are often exploring alternatives that if successful would represent a major deviation from the tried and tested. They are in essence the potential big names of the future. If you show up very excited about the status quo it's hard for them to be enthusiastic about it because that research represents the here and now, not the big deviation they're hoping to unleash on the field when the peices come together.

In short by focusing on the rock star names you're probably limiting your exposure and lacking the vision for revolutionising the way a field approaches a whole class of problems. This, combined with a view that the less established work is inferior doesn't exactly endear yourself towards people.

Finally when I read your point on egos my initial reading misinterpreted it - I thought you were referring to another seemingly large ego in the situation than the one I think you meant to refer to. You would do well to consider that.

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During my academic studies, I have always been ambitious in pursuing academic research...

That is a positive quality

All the professors whom I came across with or I attempted to set up an advisor-advisee relationship with, in some way kicked me from the deck of the ship.

If it is one or two, it may be rough patch, but if it's many, than maybe you need to change your approach. Sometimes when we show we are too ambitious, people do not take kindly to. This is human nature.

This was not due to my lack of knowledge or incapability because they acknowledged my competency many times.

It's great to have knowledge.

However, at the end of the day my hands were always empty. I have started to think that they were too lazy to adjust my eagerness and wanted to take it easy.

They say "Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all". This fragment "they were too lazy to adjust to my" shows you need to work on the heart part. I'm not saying what they are doing is right or wrong, but when you wish to change a situation, you need to look within first.

Maybe they thought that I will be a burden for them. Also, I believe that they developed a kind of hate and dislike to me because when I talked about the work of leading researchers in the field, I could feel the disgust in their faces. If I do not follow or discuss the leading researchers work how can I contribute to the field?

Not only you are showing your ambition (without heart), and you feel they are lazy, they probably think you are comparing them to leading researchers, basically telling these advisors that they are simply not good enough for you.

Please give me some advice on ego problems of academics, and how to politely show them that their research is inferior without making them hate me.

Look at how you can change yourself before blaming others. I have had personal experience with this, and continue to do so. Many times I ask God (or Universe or whatever you believe) for help in tough situations.

All the best.

4

There is always the option of pursuing academic research on your own. Nothing stops you from reading the scientific literature in your field of interest, doing your own research, writing your own papers and getting them published. Without the benefit of close supervision, this is going to take more effort, but it will allow you to collaborate with others on a more equal basis.

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    Working alone is both incredibly isolating (and scientific research is isolating anyway) and has an incredible amount of overhead. That's not taking into account necessity for specialized equipment and the necessity to earn a living doing something else. – Faheem Mitha Jun 8 '15 at 3:57
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What you have to remember is that professors have a LOT of students to deal with. So if you demand something from them, then that will probably be met with rejection.

From my own personal experience, I didn't really build a rapport with professors at first. I just sort of hung around some of the nicer ones and talked about subject matters, etc that went on in the class. Pretty soon they just came to me with opportunities or at least hinted at something they had going on.

My thought is build a relationship this way. Don't go to a professor demanding something just go there and talk about something in the class. Try to go to ones who are polite and open to discussions.

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