Brilliant Student

Emily asked:

A problem I’ve been having recently. I’m newish faculty (in my second year!) at an R1, and one of very few women in my department, which makes it hard to go to other people for advice on this.

I have a new student this year, and she’s, well, brilliant. I think of theory as really having two major components – there’s the technical stuff, which you can learn in classes, and there’s the more intuitive part, which is how people learn how to ask good questions, and is how you get a ‘feel’ for data. I’m good enough technically, but I have a career because I’m very good at the second part. It’s also worth noting that I’m in a subfield where good theory is usually close to experiment, and where mathematical frameworks don’t really exist yet.

Anyway – my new student. She worked in the field as an undergrad, and it turns out that she has a better understanding of the literature than most postdocs in our department. She’s technically not great, but she’s solidly at the top of her classes, so I expect that she’ll be at a point where there’s not much I can teach her in that respect in a year or two. And most importantly – she asks REALLY good questions. She’s been here for two months and I’m already planning on writing a grant based on something she brought up! And no, I spoke with her old undergrad advisor, these aren’t things that she lifted from his group and is pretending to have thought of, even accidentally.

I don’t know what to do with her. I’m encouraging her to spend a lot of time on classes and get her technical skills up to par, but beyond that – I don’t know how to help her. If I were to honestly advise her I would tell her to find someone else to work with – she’s going to be a better scientist than me very quickly. Or I can graduate her very quickly. Or I can just give her a lot of independence while keeping tabs on her, and treat her like some combination of a 20 year old and a senior postdoc?

Anyway, help?

I think it’s awesome you are looking out for the student and recognizing her potential.

There are several aspects here.

Don’t assume that just because a student is talented that they will necessarily quickly surpass you. You still have more experience, and I know that I always have plenty to teach even the most brilliant students. Also, first impressions are first impressions; it’s guaranteed that there are things she lacks or could be better at on account of simply being human and thus not perfect. Maybe she needs help with writing. Maybe she has trouble finishing what she started. You’ll see.

Your field is male dominated, math/computation-heavy. I cannot stress enough the importance of a good, supportive PhD advisor (hint: you!) who is also a role model.

You might think that the student deserves someone better, someone more famous, more flashy. That’s your impostor syndrome talking. I was the same with the first student who I’d thought was very talented when I first stared out; I thought I was unworthy of such a good student and was going to encourage him to move to a more hotshot prof so I wouldn’t ‘ruin’ him! Luckily, the hotshot advisor gently told me that I would be a fine advisor for the student, and that I should be a little selfish, and actually hold on to the good ones. Note: Hotshots are usually a little (or a lot) selfish and it serves them well. Learn from them.

Work with the student to the best of your ability, give her freedom, but also give her as many tools she doesn’t yet have and the full benefit of your expertise, whatever you can. Prepare her for the big cold world that may not be will definitely not be as welcoming to her genius as you are (because female geniuses are always qualified, doubted, or put down). Sending her to someone more famous might end up working out great, but it might also completely squash her if she has to battle someone’s ego, potential sexism, or plain advising neglect. Caring, as you do, it priceless. You can be a good coach even though you think that your player might have more raw talent than you.

And help her work on her weaknesses. Everyone has them, it’s an absolute guarantee. Sooner or later, as you keep working with her, you’ll figure out that she’s only human, there are things that she doesn’t know or doesn’t do very well, and you can help her. I’ve had several students where the initial reaction was “Wow, this kid is way smarter than me!” It turns out I invariably have plenty to teach such kids, mostly because my mix of abilities is different than their mix of abilities, plus I have more experience in work and life.

So forget about doing the student a disservice. Be grateful for the opportunity to work with her, advise her in the most creative and selfless way you can, and try to inoculate her, with your devoted advising, against the indifferent, cruel work of academic science that awaits her after she leaves your group.

Blogosphere, what do you say? 




  1. I completely agree with your take on this. My PhD students so far have been fantastic, but one in particular stands out as exceptionally smart AND talented at the bench. He is far more advanced than I was at that stage in my career, and he really functions more like a (good) postdoc than a grad student. But there has still been a lot that I’ve been able to work on with him. Experience is on my side (I have a lot of insight on why some of his ideas might or might not work), and I think he has benefited a lot from my experience with scientific writing and oral presentations. I’ve found that he’s been very receptive to my constructive criticism. He’s also from a group underrepresented in the sciences, as am I, so I can support him in other ways.

  2. I see this with many of my undergrads. Future brilliance surely awaits them, but they always have something to learn (and don’t we all!)

  3. One thing I have learned in my short time in academia, both from my own students and from seeing people interview for asst profs, is that there are many axes of brilliance. Sometimes people are intellectually brilliant but don’t know how to plan an experiment, or are technically fabulous but have no imagination for coming up with new ideas, or poor judgement of what ideas are worth pursuing. Use this student’s gifts and figure out what axes she needs to grow on. I will also note that most asst profs I know have one or two students who are the key people for their early research and tenure decision. Get her into your lab as much as possible (she’ll learn more from doing research than from taking more classes). If you can write in her rec letters down the road “X is the person who drove the research in my group and wrote papers A,B,C, and D”, that will be good for both you and her (i.e. your interests and hers are perfectly aligned right now – it’s your imposter syndrome that makes you think they diverge).

  4. Keep her around! Brilliant students are fun to work with, and you both might go farther than you expect. As an added bonus, graduating a brilliant student can only help your own career and tenure case.

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