When I compare myself to my advisor, I don’t compare our level of expertise, as I don’t think that’s so meaningful; he’s obviously years ahead of me in the field, and so any time I talk about research with him, I accept that I know less than him and am prepared to feel ignorant / make mistakes / ask silly questions.

But I do compare myself to him regarding things such as efficiency, organization, motivation, curiosity ... some other things perhaps. And I would say it is the efficiency that stands out the most – and where he completely leaves me in the dust.

Does this mean that the writing is on the wall, and that I should drop out of the race for academia now? Is it more of an innate skill that is so significant that it separates the best researchers from the rest? Or, is that extremely high level of efficiency something that is learned throughout many years of training?

  • 4
    The most important parameter you are ignoring is "experience", which binds together all other parameters such as expertise, collaboration, ...
    – Coder
    Aug 24, 2017 at 3:43
  • 5
    With experience, we've learned to focus on what's important and cut thru' the crap. Otherwise, you spend lots of time separating the wheat from the chaff so to speak. Curiosity, however, I believe is innate. Motivation -- many ways to motivate oneself. Other things that we do tend to be repetitive. For example, writing a paper. I have done 100s of papers, and so to the newbie, it seems like I'm quick and efficient. In tennis, people often comment that Roger Federer's play the game so effortlessly, why? tonnes of practice! Aug 24, 2017 at 4:11
  • Does your advisor actually do the legwork of research by themselves or do they have advisees do it for them?
    – Wrzlprmft
    Aug 24, 2017 at 5:28
  • Your last paragraph shows that you are feeling anxious. (Which is understandable.) But the interesting thing is that anxiety tends to slow one down. So, the single most important thing you can do to become more efficient would probably be to find ways of coping with anxiety. Aug 25, 2017 at 4:41

3 Answers 3


I don't have any scientific evidence to back this up, but in my opinion, much of what you call efficiency is learned gradually over many years in which successful people (in STEM, and more generally academia, and more generally everywhere) calibrate their work and personal life habits in response to inputs from their environment. There is a very interesting feedback loop in which success begets more success and efficiency begets more efficiency: e.g., an initial wave of success can boost one's motivation and increase one's desire to succeed even more and prompt one to become more and more passionate about working hard and being efficient, and so on. Ride this wave for a while, and before you know it, you are a workaholic who spends all day working and then has enough energy left over at night to do other fun and productive things, like post answers on Academia Stack Exchange. :-)

But seriously, I think this feedback loop is much more powerful than most people realize and accounts for how a lot of very successful people reach their high levels of productivity. I am reminded of the saying "if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it", which I think nicely encapsulates part of this notion.

At the same time, I think it's also very plausible that a component of the phenomena you observe has to do with certain innate tendencies and personality traits. Nonetheless, it's not always possible to tell early on if you have those traits or not, and I think it happens quite a lot that people discover hidden strengths and abilities they didn't even know they had quite late into their working lives. It is certainly much too soon for you to write yourself off because of what you see as an unflattering comparison with your advisor. Instead, why not draw inspiration from him and seek to learn how to emulate his habits so you can reach the same level of success?


Efficiency tends to rise with demand - the more demand for a resource exceeds supply, the more efficient with it you quickly learn to be. Time in the lab/office tends to follow a similar process. When you have 10 hours to write that abstract, it often takes 10 hours. When it's gotta get done in the next 45 minutes because that's the only time you have, you just write it in 45 minutes and be done with it.

The other main issue is experience - having done this thing before - completely changes how long it takes to get something done. When you are doing something the first few times, everything is new and requires a lot of cognitive load. Nothing is automatic yet - everything is not only deliberate, but you may need to take time thinking out all the options, then going through each of a dozen possibilities trying to explore what you should try next, then wondering what you will do if that doesn't work out quite right, are you really sure that's going to work, etc. Hours (or days, or weeks, or months) of wondering and exploring can be cut down into minutes of doing. But you kind of need learn how to do it in the first place to move on to that point.

It's valuable to look up to highly effective, proficient, efficient people and try to learn from them, but there is the constant danger of discouragement if you compare where they are now - after possibly a decade or more of experience, hundreds of papers, and who knows how many collaborators and mentors they've learned from in this time - to where you are now, comparatively just starting off. And when they were just starting out, they were not so efficient as they are now (don't believe all the legends that tend to grow with time on their own, either).

I don't know how efficient you can become, and the funny thing about human growth and development is you don't really know either. No one really knows the future, or the extent of any individual's potential. It's up to you to decide if you want to find out how efficient you can become, if you can improve your organization skills, if you can cultivate greater creativity - then you can give it you all in finding out what you can accomplish, as a sort of experiment, or you can decide if you'd really rather do something else instead. But you haven't indicated anything that signifies you are doomed from the start, so long as you are willing to accept that it takes much time and sustained effort to achieve such growth in anything that you choose to do.


I think it's worth saying that things improved for me significantly after I started asking myself a similar question. What made my supervisor so much better researcher than me? Not only he seemed way better, but it appeared that everything he did was done effortlessly and stress free.

As it turns out, it is a very complicated question with a simple answer: self-training. But, I thought, and I wasn't the only one in the group, that it must have been some sort of unusual ability he was most likely born with.

For instance, he would write a paper in a few days and it would always seem beautifully crafted and my calculations seemed to fit just right in the context. At the same time, I used to agonize months over just the introduction.

But, as I got more experienced, I realized that as far as calculations went, I was just as good as he was, if not a little better in some ways. Originally, I though that's my only strength and I played it the best I could. Because of that, I started asking myself why I'm still so far from him in terms of academic prowess.

But, after finishing my last postdoc, I became fully independent and had to come up with research themes, write grants, lead research projects and train people. With each new type of task, I had to enlarge somehow my capacity. Things that my supervisor did to approach these tasks formed the starting point for my own approach. In some ways, I've become a lot more efficient than I ever was, because I had to. For example, now I can put together a decent grant application in three weeks, while it took me over a year as a postdoc not to come up with anything that would remotely look like a research proposal.

So, I think your question is a great question. You should not get discouraged if your adviser seems so much better. At this moment, it would be hard for you to comprehend what makes him so much better, because you haven't have the time to even try all the things he needs to do on a daily basis as an independent researcher. But, as you grow yourself into one, you should keep asking yourself what makes other people better at the type of task you are trying to do, and I'll assure you, some of the answers will help you to improve yourself significantly.

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