The Joy of Having Protégés Who Will Surpass You

It has been a pleasure to have students say “I want to be like you” or “I want to have a job like yours.”  I’ve been blessed to have a job that I love and that I can shape.  I feel that I’ve been given a vision and a mission, and it’s wonderful to be able to work hard to fulfill it, but it’s even better when others take up the mantle and follow in your footsteps.  I have some students who are just phenomenal … and while they may have learned certain things from me, they have the potential to be better than me.  Sometimes I observe them and think “Wow, they’re already at this level of confidence, maturity, and proficiency as grad students, they’re going to be great once they are established in their careers!”

I’ve had a chance to talk with students who have so much potential, but they don’t have confidence yet.  They don’t see what I see. I see greatness! I’ve had the privilege of meeting students as undergrads and seeing them beginning to flourish as postdocs, new professors, and professionals.  And these folks are good! They are brilliant! But I remember when they were students … coming to my office and being nervous about not being good enough, or not being smart enough, or thinking about quitting. But now, they’re coming into their own and their research is so good that they are leading projects at the nation’s premier institutions, they’re able to appropriately challenge their colleagues to try better methods, and they are getting comments like “that was the best presentation on that topic that I’ve ever seen” or “Your work is groundbreaking.”

Here is a message to students: When a trusted mentor tells you that you’re good at something, believe them. Don’t doubt yourselves. We see many students and we’ve seen where the gaps are in our respective professions. You might have some special qualities that will fill some of those gaps. Often, we can see those qualities in you while they’re being developed.

This week, a former student (who was VERY quiet) is now a Dr. and was a guest speaker for other students who are coming behind him. His powerful confidence was extraordinary!

This week, another student accepted a position in a brand new department at a local university. She’s going to be a great professor!

This week, yet another former doctoral student is moving to another state to lead computing projects for the government.

And this week, I had the chance to observe two current students give a presentation at another school. It was videoed, so I watched it from my computer.  I was so proud; they were fabulous!

I’m at the point in my career where I’m often asked to recommend people for jobs, positions, or opportunities. And sometimes, I’m invited to give talks and my schedule is too full so I send someone in my place.  But it is comforting to confidently recommend someone whom I’ve had a hand in training. Beyond comfort, it’s  pure joy when I know that not only will s/he do a tremendous job, but either now, or in time, they will surpass my level and be better than me.