Many times I have conversed with a visitor who is much more famous and smarter than I am. We sit in my office and we/I try to find something of mutual interest that we can discuss. I am not a skilled conversationalist, but I can almost always find something to talk about for half an hour.
One of the things I am not tempted to discuss is the disparity in success or fame or IQ or amount of funding of whatever between the visitor and me. What would be the point of that?
It is therefore disconcerting for me when I find myself in the visitor's chair in someone else's office and they start the conversation with a series of self-deprecating statements about how they have not published as much as I have, and how I write better proposals than they do, and how they are basically not as successful as I am. This does not happen often, but it happens from time to time.
I hasten to note that this is not because I am so awesomely famous or well funded. My usual description of myself is "reasonably successful" as a scientist, and I think that is accurate.
I do not think the self-deprecation is a form of false modesty. The self-deprecating person is genuinely ripped up about their lack of productivity. I think these conversations stem more from insecurities than from anything specific about me or my career.
Even so, what I am supposed to say when confronted with these types of statements? I am more than willing to have a conversation about proposal strategies or ideas for new directions in research, or even to have a group wallow about some aspect of Science or Academia that is particularly controversial or nerve-wracking. If the self-deprecating person is a stressed out early career professor, I can go into mentor mode, if that seems to be a useful way to go. Otherwise, I try to steer the conversations to research-related topics that might be of mutual interest, or I ask a lot of questions.
It is possible that some "successful" visitors will want to tell you how amazing they (think they) are, but in the absence of such a conversational foray, here is a gentle request to those scheduled for an individual meeting with a visiting speaker:
Even if you feel that you are orders of magnitude less successful than your visitor in some professional capacity, even if you have the most raging case of impostor syndrome, even if you are in awe of the towering intellect of your distinguished visitor, and even if you can think of nothing more fabulous than being a short, unprepossessing middle-aged female science professor like your visitor, please tuck away these feelings and talk about Science or Students or Something else other than your (relative) lack of success.
Some visitor's egos may need continual care and stoking, but I think you will feel better, and everyone will have a more interesting half hour, if self-deprecation, whatever the reason for it, is not a major feature of the conversation.
6 months ago