How to convey the wrong message
Last week, two undergraduates I know managed to convey the wrong impression about themselves and their work in a remarkably instructive way. They have learned from their (ultimately harmless) mistakes. Maybe someone else can learn too.
Case 1: a student presents the progress in his project. He starts by stressing that the title has changed because the initial project proved too ambitious. The rest of the talk is a review of some schemes for atom cooling: nice and clear, but covering pretty well known material and leaving important schemes aside. You are listening to him. What do you conclude?
Here is a pretty reasonable analysis: the student did not match the expectations of the supervisor, so the initial ambitious project was tuned down to something hardly more than a review of literature.
Here is the truth: the incompetent fellow, if anyone, is the supervisor (myself), who did not evaluate correctly the difficulty of the initial project. The student is doing very well, he has done much more than a simple review in terms of calculations and simulations. The review was simple because I asked him to use graphs and pictures instead of equations; it was incomplete because the goal is to describe a real ongoing experiment, not to review the whole field of atom cooling!
Where did the student fail? Here are some hints:
- Opening the talk by stressing that the focus of the project has changed was the wrong thing to do: it conveys the message that something has gone wrong. Incidentally, the initial topic was pretty similar and nobody would have noticed the change.
- The student embarked in the usual idiotic “atom cooling is a fundamental whatever-not in modern physics, interesting both for our understanding of nature and for applications” and failed to mention the REAL motivation, which is the description of an experiment which is really happening two floors below.
- The talk was too simple. One must be clear of course, but if it is a research project, one must devote one or two slides to show off — I mean, to convey what has been done.
Case 2: after a few months of research under the direction of a post-doc, a student is asked in the office of the professor (a Singaporean Chinese, which matters for what follows). The professor starts by asking “What have you learned of this field so far?” and the student replies “Nothing much really”.
Here, you don’t have to be a professor to guess the rest. What is more astonishing is the background story.
The truth is that the student had learned a lot and was aware of it. But she feigned ignorance in order to give the professor the chance to explain things from the beginning and learn from his insight! She thought that, by acting this way, she would show how eager to learn she is and how much she appreciates the wisdom of the professor.
This attitude, to this extreme, can only be found in students who have been formed in the Confucian style. But a milder form happens everywhere: for instance, when a professor asks in a lecture “Do you know this or do you need a reminder?”, almost always the students ask for the reminder (maybe there it’s also a trick to slow down the pace and trick the professor into not covering too much new material). In the context of master-to-disciple relationships, it may have its value (though I personally hate it). But if you are going into research, you have to show what you know and admit what you really don’t know: both false humility and false confidence will be detected and signal the end of your application.