Student Status Puzzle

Grad students vary in their research autonomy. Some students are very willing to ask for advice and to listen to it carefully, while others put a high priority on generating and pursuing their own research ideas their own way. This varies with personality, in that more independent people pick more independent strategies. It varies over time, in that students tend to start out deferring at first, and then later in their career switch to making more independent choices. It also varies by topic; students defer more in more technical topics, and where topic choices need more supporting infrastructure, such as with lab experiments. It also varies by level of abstraction; students defer more on how to pursue a project than on which project ideas to pursue.

Many of these variations seem roughly explained by near-far theory, in that people defer more when near, and less when far. These variations seem at least plausibly justifiable, though doubts make sense too. Another kind of variation is more puzzling, however: students at top schools seem more deferential than those at lower rank schools.

Top students expect to get lots of advice, and they take it to heart. In contrast, students at lower ranked schools seem determined to generate their own research ideas from deep in their own “soul”. This happens not only for picking a Ph.D. thesis, but even just for picking topics of research papers assigned in classes. Students seem as averse to getting research topic advice as they would be to advice on with whom to fall in love. Not only are they wary of getting research ideas from professors, they even fear that reading academic journals will pollute the purity of their true vision. It seems a moral matter to them.

Of course any one student might be correct that they have a special insight into what topics are neglected by their local professors. But the overall pattern here seems perverse; people who hardly understand the basics of a field see themselves as better qualified to identify feasible interesting research topics than those nearby with higher status, and who have been in the fields for decades.

One reason may be overconfidence; students think their profs deserve more to be at a lower rank school than they do, and so estimate a lower quality difference between they and their profs. More data supporting this is that students also seem to accept the relative status ranking of profs at their own school, and so focus most of their attention on the locally top status profs. It is as if each student thinks that they personally have so far been assigned too low of a status, but thinks most others have been correctly assigned.

Another reason may be like our preferring potential to achievement; students try to fulfill the heroic researcher stories they’ve heard, wherein researchers get much credit for embracing ideas early that others come to respect later. Which can make some sense. But these students are trying to do this way too early in their career, and they go way too far with it. Being smarter and knowing more, students at top schools understand this better.

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  • Ashton

    Hello Dunning–Kruger effect!

  • L.J Zigerell

    Are there data underlying the perceived patterns mentioned here? I’d be interested in data indicating that grad students at lower-ranked schools “fear that reading academic journals will pollute the purity of their true vision.”

    that reading academic journals will pollute the purity of their true
    vision – See more at:
    that reading academic journals will pollute the purity of their true
    vision – See more at:
    that reading academic journals will pollute the purity of their true
    vision. It seems a moral matter to them. – See more at:

    • I was a bit incredulous about the pollution bit.

      But the economics dept. at George Macon probably attracts many highly independent-minded students, ideologically motivated and hoping the be the next libertarian great hope.

  • When you are a grad student at the lowest-ranked school, you are getting advice from the worst professors who were still able to get hired by somebody. When you are at the top-ranked school, you are getting advice from the best professors. Why, then, is this observation any mystery?

    When you are a grad student at the lowest-ranked school, you need a strange hit publication to have any chance of getting anywhere; failure is the lot of >99%, if I recall correctly the low-ranked schools->professor conversion rate. When you are a grad student at the highest-ranked school, you are more likely to get somewhere even without a hit publication. Why, then, is this observation any mystery?

    When you are a grad student at the lowest-ranked school, you have to at least be aware that you have very low odds of becoming a tenured professor and be there either as leisure consumption (because you love the topic) or because you plan to do something else like go into industry; in those cases, pursuing what you like most is either the point of the whole thing or not very costly (respectively). When you are a grad student at the highest-ranked school, you are aware that your tenure chances, while not great in any absolute sense, are much higher than elsewhere, and you probably plan to try to become a professor or at least keep it as an option. Why, then, is this observation any mystery?

    • I speak not only of the “lowest” rank schools, but also of “lower” than the top, which can be pretty high. Most students there put a lot of weight on the possibility of academic success, they aren’t just there to have fun.

      • > also of “lower” than the top, which can be pretty high.

        So? At the margins, do you think that there would be no effect from any of these reasons? Why expect sudden discontinuities?

        > they aren’t just there to have fun.

        And I’m sure they also say they’re at college to learn a lot.

      • Why expect sudden discontinuities?

        Robin is reporting a discontinuity he observes (although it takes a fairly close reading to discover this). The discontinuity is between students at top schools and those at all the others.

        The answer to the puzzle is that there does exist an unexpected discontinuity–in the academic job opportunities available.

        The solution (however simple it is) tends to validate Robin’s puzzlement.

        [I agree with the thrust of your other point.]

      • The top ten departments in a discipline typically produce several times (four, if I recall correctly) as many tenure-track positions as numbers 11-20.

  • Grant

    This is unrelated to doctoral students ignoring advice from their betters, but I often tell people not to take advice from people (including myself) just because they are geographically local. Learners should seek out the best information they possibly can, which is unlikely to originate from someone they have personal contact with. This would seem especially important in less well-understood topics, where the quality of advice is going to vary more greatly.

  • lump1

    If there really is that pattern, here’s a possible explanation:

    Top departments cultivate a culture of resume building, where successful faculty get across to students that “this is how it’s done,” which makes their research decisions more tactical. At middling departments, tactics seem beside the point. Since you’re probably never gonna get a job anyway, you might as well research whatever actually interests you, and hope for the best.

    • If I can put the point more cynically: Top departments trade obeisance for job opportunities. In the absence of job opportunities, you have nothing to offer as incentive for cloneship.

      • lump1

        I suppose it matters *why* advisors assign research topics to grad students. One reason is to try to maximize the student’s marketability (which also contributes to the department’s reputation). Another reason could be to accelerate the genuine progress of the discipline. A third might be to recruit the student to the advisor’s side in a disciplinary war, or to use the student’s work as a proxy in such a war.

        I have a feeling that the first reason is most common, the third is not rare, and the second reason is almost never used. I imagine that reasons 2 and 3 would come up as often in middling departments as in the top ones, but not reason 1. That’s because the faculty of top departments are also the editors of the top journals, atendees of the top conferences, and generally have advanced notice on what sort of research is about to blow up. In many cases, they’re *making* the hot stuff hot. So maybe students at top programs benefit more from letting advisors assign research topics, because the advice they receive is likely to be better than what they would get in a middling program. They either get better cottails to ride, or they have an insider scoop on a bombshell articles destined to appear in the Autumn edition of some fancy journal. If your advisor tells you “anything with the word ‘blahblahition’ in the title will be auto-published in a top-10 journal if they receive the article by April” then you’d be a fool to not start writing about blahblahition today!

      • I don’t know if this continues to be the case but, in my experience, at a prestigious department students were hired as research assistants and required to work on their major professors’ research projects. Students were pretty much assigned to major professors and expected to stay with them as long as the professor would have them, all the way to the Ph.D. Your Ph.D. topic will relate to your major professor’s projects. [This is pretty intolerable at an idealistic young age if you lack interest in the subject matter, agreement with the premises, or confidence in the methodolgy.] The expectation is that you are pursuing a career, not (at this stage) any specific intellectual interest. [This would seem to be what Robin would prefer.] In some ways it struck me as an anti-intellectual environment.

        At nonprestigious departments, the funding just isn’t available to secure this conformity.

        As to why, I take it from Robin that the overarching drive of academics is to clone themselves. Other reasons are mostly rationalization.

  • Being smarter and knowing more, students at top schools understand this better.

    But in rebuttal to the characterization, while it’s true that students at top schools defer more, it is also true that the smartest students at each quality of school defer less than do the less smart students at the same schools.

    • I don’t see that pattern; I see the opposite.

      • fwiw, my observations derive from Social Psychology at UW Madison circe 1970 (top 10 at the time); Psychology at University of South Carolina (circe 1970s and very mediocre); and the reported observations of a philosophy professor at University of S.C. (now at a top tier department) who graduated from Stanford. [His impression, which is no doubt worth more than mine, though not necessarily more than yours is that the smartest students chose nonconforming projects to signal their intelligence.]

        Perhaps there’s a distinction in disciplines. If you’re smart and in economics or physics, it seems easier to show it while remaining on the beaten track than in psychology or philosophy.


    This is a weird phenomenon. I’ve never noticed, or heard about this in my country and indeed one of the big differences with the US is that my country doesn’t have “top universities” (it does have big differences between college-like institutions where you can get applied bachelors degree, but they all charge the same tuition that is mandated by law and don’t require applicants to be related to the Habsburgs or have a gazillion extra-curricular activities on their resume).

    In the US, to the degree that there are qualitative differences between universities, students might be partially justified in assuming they’re more likely than their professors to be at an institution “under” their level, simply because personal/family finances and connections play such a big role in student placement/acceptance. Still there is also a (I think smaller) chance where good professors miss out on positions at top universities because they themselves couldn’t get into a top university back in the day.

    Overall though it’s dangerous self-overestimation but I guess that’s what you get in a society that constantly tells kids a university that’s 4 times as expensive is also 4 times better, and of course because these institutions are already tethered to the elites through networks of alumni the naive could actually believe they’re seeing evidence of this difference in quality (alumni getting all the best jobs).

  • Anonymous

    If you’re the type of person who wants to do it all by himself, how likely is it you’ll make it into a top university?

    • IMASBA

      That mostly depends on the financial state and connections of your parents, doesn’t it? And it’s not like willingness to defer gets measured and recorded accurately for undergraduates.

  • cruuzer

    I don’t see one explanation mentioned: students at lower ranked undergrad schools often faced less hard competition and often saw truly bottom tier students more often than people at top schools. Students who went to really top ranked universities for undergrad were more likely to have taken at least a few courses where they were surrounded by people as good or much better than they were. This is humbling in and of itself. Those who emerged from good but broader programs (such as a top state school) might have seen just as many good students but a much, much larger number of weak to average students. Thus they overestimated their abilities. More important they often did well by ignoring the crowd.

    Although elite schools can be grade inflated, their top STEM or Econ students were likely to have hit courses like Harvard’s Math 55 or Caltech’s Physics 106 or Chicago’s Real Analysis courses that would really push you. And with a less varied student body, there would be no bottom to cushion the curve as in UCLA, Michigan, or Virginia.

    • IMASBA

      Then again, smarter students will have faced less competition in high school, they can get lazy as a result and when you’ve learned to be lazy while in high school it is particularly hard to unlearn that later on.

      • IMASBA

        Though the smartest students often don’t score the best grades anyway (or any other metrics universities use), or only on a very narrow range of subjects, partly because they’ve become lazy in high school.

  • One can see how independent-minded students would be exasperating to professors seeking to clone themselves.

  • myrealitie

    People who get into top schools do so in large part because they are conscientious. This means that they are always paying attention to what they are “supposed” to be doing – before, during, and after grad-school. Top graduate programs select for conscientiousness, not original thinking.

    I’m surprised that you seem to have contempt for people who follow their own hunches. Of course it’s a riskier strategy on the individual level, but most of the good things that we have today came from lucky pioneers.

    • lump1

      I think you’re on to something. Let’s say that following prof advice tends to be good for your application once you go on the market. Who will be most likely to take that advice? Someone who is really into cultivating an impressive job application, and willing to let other considerations take a back seat. And what grad students got into the top programs? The ones who did whatever needed to be done to assemble impressive applications. It’s no wonder that the dispositions which got them there don’t disappear.

      My only quibble is with your word “consciencious” to describe this sort of person. One could also describe him or her as a climber. In medicine, they are called “gunners”. But anyway, I think that such people tend to concentrate in the top departments. Often, they also have extraordinary talent, but even if they do, the talent played a much smaller role in getting them into the top program than did their gunnerish dispositions.

      • myrealitie

        Yes, as I was writing it I was wondering if “conscientious” perfectly captured what I meant. I do think you can be conscientious and not have this “climbing” quality, absolutely.

      • It’s possible, but is it likely?

        It’s possible to be overly conscientious (for a given role). Graduate students at elite schools are highly conscientious. (Professors cloning themselves need conscientious students.) But (my guess) the most productive scholars are less conscientious; intellectual progress requires rule breaking.

        It would seem that the requirements for the Peter Principle are in place.

  • Lord

    I would think it more a matter of knowing their own interests and expecting less support from their professors, though it may be they feel can can demand more at top schools, whether they can get it or not.

  • M.Jay

    A willingness to defer may help students get into top schools. Crummy sample size, but of the people I knew in undergrad (small liberal arts school), those most likely to go on to grad school tended to spend a nontrivial amount of energy cultivating friendships with professors, which could make them more attractive candidates for better PhD programs by providing (i) greater understanding of the subject matter, (ii) better rec letters, and (iii) better grades. As far as I can tell, the interest in the subject matter was genuine, but to a degree there was a sense among these students that they were “winning the game.” Being on good terms with your professors also promoted a willingness to defer to their positions – a student who knew a professor’s life work was spent arguing for Position A would know never to attack Position A, or at least not attack Position A too strongly or passionately – and of course their grade would be better if they defended Position A. It’s plausible that the habit of cultivating likeability and deferring to professors in undergrad, which would tend to make students able to get into a better school, would lead to a willingness to cultivate likeability with well-connected professors in grad school, and hence defer to their guidance and research interests.

    I also agree that, even lacking the above tendency, students would be more likely to defer to the higher quality (or at least higher status) professors at top-tier schools. If someone is a leader in the field, someone who you admire, have read before, and want to emulate, you’re more likely to think they have more to teach you and are more worth listening to than someone you admire less and may resent having to study under instead of a top-tier professor.

  • arch1

    nit: adverse -> averse

  • Paul Gowder

    To what extent is it possible that this same dynamic applies to professors? Those at lower-ranked schools could also perceive themselves as erroneously assigned low status, and thus perceive a larger difference between the deference owed to their advice and the deference it receives.

  • Daublin

    Arnold Kling’s “Genghis Khan” view of academia can explain this very easily.

    The more you defer to your advisor, the more you are setting yourself up for a life of following in that person’s footsteps. That’s a tempting proposition if you work for Ghenghis Khan himself. If you are working for some podunk nobody, though, then it’s less tempting, and you are more tempted to swing for the fences and hope to make it big later on.

    It also matters on a day to day basis with your involvement with other people. When you align with Genghis Khan, you will walk through life having everyone bow to the things you say except for a few weirdo outcasts. If you align with a nobody, it’s just the opposite; everyone including Genghis’s tribe will be throwing rotten tomatoes at you, much like if you identify as libertarian or as a gold bug.