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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