we have a summer student seminar series, in which students who are doing summer research give 15-minute talks about their research. These are generally pretty good– our students are, by and large, very good public speakers.

One thing that I always find interesting about this is how many of the students end up sounding just like their advisors. It’s not just the content of the talks– which obviously is approved by the advisor before the talk is given– but also the style. Some students even pick up the mannerisms of their advisors– verbal tics, hand gestures, etc. You see the same thing with graduate students, as well– a lot of graduate students at meeting give talks that sound just like a talk from their boss.

There are two possible explanations for this: It could be that the feedback given during the preparation of the talk pushes the students to adopt the style preferred by their advisor. Or it might be that students and advisors with similar personal styles gravitate toward one another, so faculty tend to end up with students who start out a lot like them, and thus don’t need much pushing to give talks just like their advisor.

I can come up with plural anecdotes to support either of these models– I’ve had students who copied me very closely, and students who just would not change their style, even when it bugged me– but this seems like a reasonable topic to throw out to the audience. So, a poll:

I’ve probably left some options off, too. If your favorite choice isn’t on that list, you know where the comments are.

Comments

  1. #1 DFB
    July 13, 2010

    What about

    “Students just start to sound like their advisor because they spend so much time listening to them with aching love and admiration?”

  2. #2 Becca Stareyes
    July 13, 2010

    Of course, now I want to do a blinded study. Get a bunch of the professors and grad students here to give talks, and then see if a random sample of people who have no clue who is who match them.

    Only problem would be that if we go by research, it doesn’t take a genius to match the student talking about Cassini to the planetary astronomer, the student talking about Spitzer to one of the IR astronomers, the student talking about ALFALFA to the radio astronomers, etc. It’d be more effective to give everyone a random paper and tell them to summarize that.

    I suppose to distinguish things, we take the first years here and listen to them talk before they pick advisers, then compare that to oral talks given in their third or fourth years.

  3. #3 GP
    July 13, 2010

    Aside from the “aching love and admiration” part, I’m with DFB. Students learn how to talk about their research by listening to their supervisors talk about their research.

  4. #4 rdbhcx
    July 13, 2010

    After a year of doing research with him, I started to laugh like my advisor.

  5. #5 Chad Orzel
    July 13, 2010

    Only problem would be that if we go by research, it doesn’t take a genius to match the student talking about Cassini to the planetary astronomer, the student talking about Spitzer to one of the IR astronomers, the student talking about ALFALFA to the radio astronomers, etc. It’d be more effective to give everyone a random paper and tell them to summarize that.

    Or you could ask everybody to talk about the same issue, something with no relation to their research, that they could research online and generate their own talk about.

    I suppose to distinguish things, we take the first years here and listen to them talk before they pick advisers, then compare that to oral talks given in their third or fourth years.

    That would also work.
    It’s a little tough to measure speaking style in a quantitative way, of course, but I’m sure you could come up with something.

  6. #6 Jess
    July 13, 2010

    I’ve been in grad school five years. Sometimes I come in to work to find that I’m DRESSED like my adviser. Wouldn’t be as weird if we weren’t opposite sex.

  7. #7 disgruntledphd
    July 13, 2010

    Well speaking as a current phd student, i would argue that the similarity (such as it exists) probably results from both students and advisors selecting people who feel familiar.

    Of course, the other explanation is that you have been primed by knowledge of their advisors to be attentive to similarities and ignore differences, much like some the research on information and political beliefs.

  8. #8 disgruntledphd
    July 13, 2010

    Well speaking as a current phd student, i would argue that the similarity (such as it exists) probably results from both students and advisors selecting people who feel familiar.

    Of course, the other explanation is that you have been primed by knowledge of their advisors to be attentive to similarities and ignore differences, much like some the research on information and political beliefs.

  9. #9 A.P.
    July 13, 2010

    “Monkey See, Monkey Do” is a well-documented behavioral trait. Memetic contagions of the sort you describe are very common. Many of us unconsciously mirror others’ postures and mannerisms. People who live together or work closely with others are very likely to imitate them. Subordinates and “junior” staff are especially susceptible to picking up the styles of their “superiors” or those who are already experts in their field. “Juniors” need to feel “in sync” to be accepted and/or to feel comfortable in an uncertain world. Two cheers for our mirror neurons!

  10. #10 Marco
    July 13, 2010

    Hi Chad,
    This in my opinion is a sociological group effect. Subordinates tend to subconsciously take over the mannerisms of their bosses. It is a subtle way to show your allegiance to the leader of the group.
    If you don’t believe it just look around if you are discussing in a small group. If there is a feeling of mutual understanding people will tend to take over each others postures.
    I’m sure a lot can be found about it on the internet.

  11. #11 Eric Lund
    July 13, 2010

    My instinct is exactly in line with A.P.’s thoughts. Students learn by copying the successful examples around them, where as usual “successful” is defined as “has obtained a tenure track position.” They especially learn to imitate their advisor, who is almost always the alpha scientist in their hierarchy. As a personal example: Toward the end of my grad student years I could give a guaranteed-correct one sentence summary of any meeting between a student and my advisor, merely by combining several of my advisor’s verbal tics in one sentence. This was of course parody, but there is a fine line between parody and imitation.

  12. #12 A.P.
    July 13, 2010

    Richard Dawkins talks about people’s imitation of those in “quasi-parental roles” and other authority figures in his introduction to Susan Blackmore’s book *The Meme Machine.* For the curious — find it on Google Books by searching “Wittgenstein in Meme Machine.”

  13. #13 onymous
    July 13, 2010

    I’ve never noticed such a correlation.

  14. #14 MRW
    July 16, 2010

    My guess it that the biggest reasons are “indoctrination”-like. That includes unconscious mimicry of the advisor and fellow group members, conciously using the advisor’s and other group members’ talks as a guide, and getting advice from the advisor and other group members. I think “selection” plays a role, but it’s probably not as strong.

  15. #15 Tex
    July 24, 2010

    This convergence is caused by the exact same phenomenon that eventually leads people to look like their pets.

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