Are professors intimidated by intelligent students?

Is your professor intimidated by your knowledge?

If you've seen The Theory of Everything, a film about the life of Stephen Hawking, you might wonder if his professors were intimidated by his incredible brain. Students around the world do wonder. They asked this question a lot on Quora and this is what professors answered...


'I personally love to engage with smart students and very much admire people who have carefully considered opinions and the courage to argue them, even if I disagree with the opinions in question. In fact, I’d say that this is one of the main reasons I love my job – helping smart and passionate young people finding their voice and purpose.

Any professor who is confident and passionate about what he or she is teaching will only welcome intelligent and engaged students – as long as they are respectful and constructive, of course. Therefore, in a way this question could be rewritten as “are there professors who are incompetent”? I guess the answer must be yes.'

Stefano Puntoni, Professor of Marketing, Department of Marketing Management, Rotterdam School of Management


'I am not, I love it when students are really intelligent or make connections that I did not make myself before. However, even if students are really intelligent, it is quite rare that they would know a lot about my expertise area. I did have a student once who pointed out a mistake in my article, and I thought that was great.'

Michaéla C. Schippers, Professor of Behaviour and Performance Management
Department of Technology & Operations Management, Rotterdam School of Management

You are Not the Next Stephen Hawking

'Think about what causes intimidation. It's a lack of confidence in yourself when faced with someone who you think is better/smarter/stronger/....  If you're confident in who you are and what you've accomplished, then there's no fear or intimidation when faced with someone who is better than you.

If you're lucky enough to get a PhD, work on interesting research problems, and work in the same community as the top people in your field, then you have to come to grips with your own limitations. 

You have to accept the fact that no matter how good you are, or how much better you can get with age and experience and hard work, there will always be those who are better than you, smarter, faster, more creative or knowledgeable than you. It's just the way the world works. 

Chances are you're not the next Stephen Hawking, or Linus Pauling, Newton, Tesla, or DaVinci.  Even they had to contend with contemporaries who were often better, faster, or luckier. So you have to manage that ego. Otherwise, you'd just go nuts. 

I've been lucky enough to work in a community with some truly exceptional people, and I'm happy to call some of the smartest people I've ever met my friends and colleagues. But if I constantly compared myself and competed with them, I would literally be a complete mess.

So my point is that by the time you get to be a professor, chances are you've already known and worked with some of the best minds on the planet, minds that force to you accept your own limitations on a daily basis. 

I've met, taught, and mentored some exceptionally intelligent students. And certainly a number of them have been smarter than me, some much smarter. But we're confident in what we've accomplished and who we are, and just hope that these great students with huge potential can have the same luck that we've had, and fulfill their potential.'

Ben Y. Zhao, Professor of Computer Science at UCSB, PhD Berkeley

Try Not to Show Off

'I've been fortunate, in my career, to have had very bright students at a series of elite universities. Some kids are scary smart. A lot and maybe most smarter than I am. I've never been the least bit intimated but I don't like kids who try to show off how smart they are.

On occasion I've done a take-down of such students generally to the praise of the other students, who dislike such show-offs even more than I do. I was never one of those guys who claimed I learned more from my students than they from me – and God help us if that were true. But bright kids showing off their knowledge just a little and respectfully challenging do make me think hard about what I'm professing, and sometimes to get a better grip on whatever it might be. 

I've been embarrassed more than few times by mistakes caught by alert kids and sometimes challenged on what students think are political opinions. In the former case you just suck it up, apologise, and shake your head at your own stupidity or incompetence. It's not wrong to say you were wrong. 

I love arguing with students but not about politics. In any case it's not about being intimidated but trying to be human. We all screw up, and in most of the places I hang out, I'm not the genius in the room. On the few occasions when I'm probably smarter or better informed than most of the other people I try to not show off, even to the point of letting stupid statements go  unchallenged.'

David Schneider, Retired Professor of Psychology

Together we Move Ahead in Science

'I have always strived to surround myself with students and colleagues who are more intelligent than I am. I now have a former student working for me, full time, who is more intelligent than I am. I am intimidated now and then, but it is such a wonderful experience that I would never give it up. 

Together we move ahead in science at many times the rate that either of us could go by ourselves. He knows he is more intelligent than I am – but I think he finds I bring other important elements to the collaboration. Intelligent students in the classroom are wonderful to experience. It is very rewarding to have a student who learns quickly. 

One of my happiest moments as a teacher was when I did what I thought was a poor job at teaching a concept in physics, and afterwards a student came up to me, asked some questions that made it clear he had understood and learned. I realised that I didn't have to be perfect; that students are intelligent, and it was sometimes sufficient for me to be a catalyst. 

So yes, I sometimes do get intimidated by others who are more intelligent than I am. But I've learned to seek out ongoing relationships with such people. It provides the best kind of ongoing education.'

Richard Muller, Professor of Physics, UC Berkeley, author of Now: The Physics of Time

Text Manon Sikkel Daelmans/


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