Friday, December 19, 2008

Delayed Admiration

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.

23 comments:

Alex said...

I think that "I underestimated you" is actually a very humble statement. Or at least it could be, depending on how it's delivered.

Anonymous said...

FSP, I usually agree with you on matters of etiquette, but in this case I don't see it. As long as it is not delivered in a nasty way, "I underestimated you" seems like a fine way of telling someone that you admire what they have done, and tacitly owning up to any (mistaken) low opinion you might have expressed in the past.

Of course, it admits that you held a low opinion in the first place, but what is the great harm in this if the point is to say you were wrong to do so?

Michael Albert said...

I agree with Alex, though I suspect my view is somewhat conditioned by Canadian/British/Antipodean cultural norms. To me: "I'm proud of you" is far more likely to denote egomania with its implied "and happy to have been responsible for putting you on the right track." Whereas, "I underestimated you" contains the implicit "and am very pleased that that didn't turn out to be a detriment to your career."

As the recipient I would always be sure that "I underestimated you" was intended as a sincere compliment, while "I'm proud of you" could always be fishing for "Oh, I never could have done it without you."

Hope said...

Did your colleague know that his MS advisor didn't think the world of him back then? In that case, "I underestimated you" is appropriate. It strikes me as more honest than "I'm proud of you."

Anonymous said...

I agree with Alex. This guy was saying that he had been in the wrong. It is not so much a compliment as it is a mea culpa.

CurtFischer said...

I think it would be a better story if long-retired MS professor had said to the rock-star, "You've done pretty well over the years, and I'm proud of you for that. But you know something? I'd always thought you'd do more..."

Lynne said...

I agree with Alex, depends on the delivery, and the person. If the guy treated his former student like crap and was really hard on him, this is basically an apology. That might actually be appreciated! But yes, "I'm proud of you" would have been much more appropriate.

EliRabett said...

What may have happened is that the parting was driven by the under-estimation and what the adviser is saying is "I was wrong and I know it"

Average Professor said...

I also agree with Alex and Michael. It seems like "I underestimated you" could be code for "You have become a very good scientist, no thanks to me," whereas "I am proud of you" could be code for "You have become a very good scientist, and I take some of the credit."

female Science Professor said...

It's true that context is key. This ex-advisor was not being humble and was not apologizing. He was bestowing a crumb of praise.

quietandsmalladventures said...

quite honestly, i would love to see the day where my MS advisor said that to me. i would take it as high praise indeed as he was rarely complimentary to us in person, instead preferred to tell other people we had done well. in short, during 3 years of working with him i rarely heard "you've done well", so "i underestimated you" would be nirvana.

it's good to see that this can happen and actually that other advisors actually debate about the best way to express praise to their students, both current and past.

Anonymous said...

I've heard similar things in the past about my performance and it has felt as if they were saying, "holy, cow I thought you were an idiot but low behold you came in and knocked everyone's socks off!" You aren't such an idiot!"

Which is nice, in that know they know I am capable and that I wasn't crazy in thinking they doubted me and my abilities.

neurowoman said...

So, what does the realization that faculty can be wrong about students' potential mean, in an age where a mentor has an obligation to steer students who won't make it in academic science into non-academic careers? Should mentors encourage even lesser students, when the competition is so cut-throat? How do you know who will succeed and who won't?

Shawn Michel de Montaigne said...

"Bestowing a crumb of praise."

Yep.

That's been my experience, almost to a T.

This looks like a great blog. I look forward to dropping in again soon.

Best--

Anonymous said...

"I underestimated you" is indeed "nice-ish" at best.

Little good comes from telling anyone what *you* expected him or her to achieve in his or her career-- actual successes, not past personal expectations, should be the subject of legitimate admiration.

A better version: "Your research has become increasingly impressive with time."

Ms.PhD said...

I agree, you should add this to your book of etiquette.

I think it's clear when people underestimate me, they don't need to say so. What I would like to hear later is exactly what you said, if they're proud of me (rather than that they're "impressed" since they always sounds like they expected less!).

Anonymous said...

I think the Professor probably meant the comment as a sincere compliment and is just socially inept, as are many people in academia.

yolio said...

I hear it as an insult. I hear "you seemed like such an idiot before, I couldn't imagine you'd be capable of anything worthwhile." From which it is safe to infer that you still *seem* like an idiot, but there is the hard evidence of your accoplishments to counter the impression.

It is interesting that there are so many different interpretations.

butterflywings said...

Hmmmmmm. I am with Alex et al.
Yes I can see context matters, but... *if* the supervisor really *did* underestimate this person, it's a nice thing to say. With the other proviso that they knew at the time their supervisor didn't think much of them - and they probably did, unless they were particularly self-confident or dense.
MsPhD, I don't see that 'I'm impressed' could be an insult, either.
Mind you, I need validation from superiors (and people in general) due to low self-esteem...maybe where the person is coming from affects how such comments are interpreted.

Anonymous said...

Of course it's a crumb of praise! The old advisor is trying to keep the younger colleague in his place.

If someone had a negative opinion of me in the past, why on earth do they need to tell me about it today?

mudphudder said...

Agree with Alex. More than likely, your colleague sensed his advisor's feelings long before the advisor admitted to it, which if the case would eliminate any personal feelings of insult that I would feel. Quite frankly, the advisor's unspoken act of underestimating your colleague way back when was probably the worse insult.

Hearing "I underestimated you" may just as well have been a nice moment of acceptance/confirmation/approval from his old advisor.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Count me as a vote for the "this is fine" camp. Of course, I only say that because I tend to think that one or two of my professors underestimated me and, spiteful wench that I am, have dedicated myself to proving them wrong.

I guess this means that I owe them a thank-you note: apparently, nothing motivates me quite like spite.

David said...

I think a lot depends on what transpired when the individual was working with/under the mentor. If at that time in one fashion or another the mentor was less than enthusiastic about the student (and said so) then the comments are an admission of error and appreciation of accomplishments, although as many point out it could have been more graceful. If on the other hand the mentor was (falsely) enthusiastic at the original time, then both the that behavior and the current behavior are at least ungracious if not downright unpleasant.