Reminder: Tomorrow is the deadline for the FSP Statement of Purpose Contest. Many of the submissions thus far have been quite terrifying.
A colleague of mine who got an MS degree ~ 20 years ago and went on to get a PhD at a different institution, then an NSF postdoctoral fellowship and a faculty position in which he has excelled, becoming widely known and respected in his field, a recipient of numerous grants, a perpetual invited speaker at international conferences and the holder of an endowed chair, recently had a conversation with his long-retired MS advisor.
The advisor said that he had been reading some publications by my colleague, including an early paper related to the MS research, and thought they were really good. He said "I underestimated you". He said that way back when, he actually didn't think much of the research his former student did, but now that he has looked at it more closely, he is impressed.
In this case the student's work was apparently good and the advisor didn't recognize it at the time. Another common scenario is that the work isn't really all that great (says me). It is the rare person who, in their first or second year of graduate school, demonstrates in a compelling and unambiguous way the great scientist that they will eventually be.
I have had students who seemed like they were going to be superstars but who flamed out, and others who were slow and steady and ramped up to excellence over the course of years. Did I overestimate the former and underestimate the latter? Maybe, but whether I was right or wrong about any of it, do I want or need to report on my current perception of the gap between their student-science and their current-science, now or ever?
Students by definition are in learning mode. Professors are too, and only become wise and all-knowing the moment tenure is awarded.
Anyway.. I personally can't imagine saying "I underestimated you" to a former student because
1 - Is there any point to saying this?
2 - It's not actually a very nice thing to say.
Maybe the ex-advisor thought he was complimenting his former student and it was his grudging, socially-inept way of saying a nice-ish thing, but I think it takes a certain level of egomania for someone to think an admission-of-error statement like "I underestimated you" is a compliment.
My colleague was bemused by this conversation, not annoyed or upset, but even so, I think a more straightforward "I'm proud of you" would be a better way to cover some of the same ground. Perhaps I should add this point to FSP's Guide to Academic Etiquette.
6 months ago