Why you are not the ‘star student’ (and how to become one)



I have a friend doing his PhD, let’s call him Ronald.

Ronald is clever, bright and diligent. He’s spent many, many hours in the lab building prototypes and producing copious amounts of data. He’s clearly on the verge of a breakthrough that would change his field (but has yet to publish anything for fear of being scooped). In fact his work is so original and complex that most people don’t understand it. Ronald’s had the opportunity to go to a couple of overseas conferences, but he’s refused each time. He’s on a limited income and the funds on offer wouldn’t quite cover all the expenses he’d calculated.

Ronald always attends and contributes to lab meetings. He knows it’s important to talk about his work with colleagues, but only turns up to the social events occasionally. He has a wife and a large network of friends outside the university. He’s sociable, he just has a lot to do. His focus on work is absolute. Going out for a coffee during a work day would be a waste of time and he really hates the ‘paperwork’ parts of academia. The number of emails the school sent him asking for stuff drives him crazy. Last summer he just declared email bankruptcy and deleted all of the old mails on the assumption that someone would chase him up again if it was really important. It’s the work that attracted Ronald to the PhD in the first place and he wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of his breakthrough.

Sadly, Ronald’s supervisor, a big name researcher in his field, doesn’t seem to value Ronald’s qualities. This supervisor is extremely busy and a little bit curt with people he thinks are ‘time wasters’. Ronald doesn’t think he falls into this category, but he is constantly passed over in favour of Anna, a young woman who started a year after Ronald at the lab. Anna was offered the paid teaching and research work her supervisor didn’t have time to do. In her second year, Anna was the tag-along to the ‘big conference’ in the field with the supervisor, and given the honour of presenting the poster describing the work of the whole lab. Anna didn’t even have to fund this trip. She told Ronald she’d got a bursary for writing the most papers of all the PhD students this year (a bursary he’d never even heard of). Anna seemed to be publishing all the time, often as first author — a privilege that wasn’t accorded to other students, including Ronald. At social events Anna was the one everyone wanted to talk to. Anna was acknowledged as the ‘star student’ by everyone. Even the Dean speculated about which famous lab would accept her for a post-doc.

It was hardly surprising that Ronald was resentful of Anna’s success, but he was a nice guy (and politically smart enough) not to be a jerk about it. Outwardly he smiled and made nice with Anna, but inwardly he seethed. So, it seemed, did many of the students in the lab. Over coffee one day he told me the prevailing theory for Anna’s success was that she was sleeping with the big name supervisor. They do spend a lot of time together — she even house sits for him and walks his dog. At this point I felt compelled to point out this theory was blatantly sexist. Sleeping with students carries heavy penalties. Having a relationship with a student is the most certain way I know for academics to get the sack. Although relationships do develop between students and teachers, 99.999% of supervisors are way too smart to endanger their job. If they are going to carry on affairs and/or be unfaithful to partners it’s far more likely to happen with another colleague after too many drinks at the conference dinner, 3000 miles from home.

Even though I’d never met her, I suspected knew some stuff about Anna already. I asked Ronald how many of the statements below were true:

  1. Anna’s presentations are engaging, visual and interesting
  2. Anna can talk about her research well, both on stage and one to one. In her spare time, Anna volunteers for a local community group or has an interest in theatre.
  3. Anna helps publish the school newsletter, or runs the blog for the lab
  4. Anna is prompt and efficient when answering email.
  5. Anna regularly has coffee or lunch with a wide variety of people, even the receptionist.
  6. Anna is on the student-staff consultative committee and/or a participating member of the student union.

Ronald answered “yes” to all of these questions and looked startled. Sometimes people think I have super-natural powers of observation, but it’s not magic I assure you. Our research suggests that PhD students who have better networks are more employable. This behaviour must start during the PhD and you can see it in the ‘star students’. Anna isn’t a star student by who she is, but what she does. Let’s unpack these behaviours one by one:

  1. Your presentations are one of the rare moments where all that invisible work in the lab becomes visible. If they shine, you shine. You still have to do great research work — but the right people have know about it or that work is largely wasted.
  2. Being able to talk about your work is critical, but it’s not all about being on stage, 3MT style. You must be able to engage in professional conversations as both a critical and creative contributor. This is a difficult skill to master. Don’t under-estimate the amount of practice you will need, especially if you are the sort that has hobbies that are solitary, or conducted entirely online (like team based computer gaming). Even sport has more limited opportunities to practice because the interaction is largely structured by pre-set rules. Her work for community groups and theatre hobby means Anna has hours and hours more practice at talking to people about how to get (creative) things done than Ronald.
  3. Anna gets a number of benefits from her participation in the ‘non scholarly’ publication that are perhaps too numerous to list here. The most important, in my opinion, is that her skills at writing to deadline and managing technical aspects of getting words on the web are showcased to those who matter in management and administration. Once you are known to be good at this, other opportunities to engage with the media follow. Many non-academic staff members to know more about what is going on than academics, who rarely open that email newsletter. By helping out, Anna got access to all the valuable intel first.
  4. Email is one of those chores we all have to do. Being prompt and helpful sends an important professional message about your reliability in every single email. Reliability counts much more than you would think in academia. The person who gets chosen to go to the conference as a tag along has to be reliable as well as a good performer. Anna’s behaviour on email and her ability to deliver a great presentation tells her supervisor she is the package – both creative and efficient. Of course he chooses her, not Ronald who he has yet to see produce anything. As a result of this trip, Anna spent more one on one time personal time with her supervisor than any other person in the lab. When the supervisor sprained his ankle in Helsinki, she helped him navigate the healthcare system and carted his luggage about. They developed a high level of trust — hence the house sitting. And the dog walking? Her supervisor lives alone and needed someone to walk the dog while he had his foot up on the couch, recovering. Anna exercises her dog everyday and lives close by. It’s no bother to Anna to pick up Fido on her way past the door at 6am. So he gives her the key to the gate. This regular morning walk turned out to be a habit Fido enjoyed, so the arrangement stayed in place. Anna and her supervisor are now professionally friendly — not exactly friends, but close. It’s hardly surprising that she’s getting first author. Unlike the other students who are too scared of the supervisor to treat him like a normal human, she feels free to ask.
  5. Anna isn’t ‘wasting time’ having coffees and lunch. She’s having important down time from her work, maintaining academic friendships and building new ones. Connections with a wide variety of people at work has been shown to have benefits for creativity. By spreading herself around, Anna builds a stronger network of support, allies and potential collaborators. The reason everyone flocks to Anna at a party is they already know they can talk to her. Success breeds success. If a lot of people seem willing to talk to one person, it makes that person seem more approachable. By contrast, Ronald, despite being a lovely guy, didn’t have much ‘other stuff’ to talk to people about at those gatherings, which made conversations awkward.
  6. Involvement in the student consultative committee allows Anna to ‘peek behind the curtain’ and lear how the place really works. Sometimes people with fancy titles do not have much power and vice versa. Anna is more likely to meet people in high places through this work, never a bad thing. I suspect this is why the Dean thinks she is going places. But it’s not all about kissing up. She’s out to lunch with the receptionist remember? Turns out they met at the committee meeting and realised they had a very similar sense of humour and interests. Anna’s no snob: she understands that friendships should be with people you like, no matter what they do. The side benefit of this friendship is Anna got the early heads-up on the introduction of that paper writing bursary before it even got to the newsletter. With six months longer to prepare than other students, no one had a hope of beating her. If I was Anna’s mentor I would advise her to share that knowledge, not hoard it, but that’s a post for another time.

Ronald was operating under the basic assumption of fairness that is common to many people who have gone straight from undergraduate to PhD and never worked outside of academia. As an undergraduate you are consistently awarded for the quality of your work and achievements. It’s easy to think the only thing that matters is the work, but it’s not. When you get to the PhD stage you start to be rewarded for the way you work, not just the work itself. To be clear, I don’t think Anna was doing any of this ‘networking’ deliberately. The best networkers have an affinity with people and are well trained in the social arts of conversation. The rest of us have to learn the hard way.

I believe, with a few tweaks, Ronald could adjust his behaviour so it was more in line with what Anna was doing, while maintaining his comfort level with respect to social interaction. In my view he needs to do two things:

  1. Work on making his presentations amazing and get over the fear of being ‘scooped’
  2. Get more involved in the volunteer, community work that is available in the department. He could ask the receptionist for some suggestions, she seems nice.

But the biggest shift Ronald needs to make in his head. His lifetime as a ‘good student’ has conditioned him to think that anything but academic achievement is superfuous. I could see it in the way he denigrated others who did care for being “shallow” and worrying about “stuff that isn’t important”. Paying attention to how others perceive you is not shallow, it’s a critical part of the game. I would argue that being a helpful, engaged member of the community is more likely to lead to happiness too – and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

What do you think? What do you do “extra” community work in your department? Would you recommend it? Do you pay enough attention to what others think of you, or do you think the work is the most important thing?