I'm in my first year of a PhD at a UK university as part of a Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) programme. I am part of a cohort of students, most of whom have come straight from an undergraduate degree and not had any "real-world" experience. I am half a decade older than them due to getting some life experience and working in teaching for a few years before realising where my academic interests lie and that I decided to give it another go.

I have realised that some of the students on my cohort are, to put it politely, not the sorts of people I would actively choose to work with. They may be very able STEM students with excellent academic credentials, but they have tendencies which are getting on my nerves and making them less pleasant to be around. These include:

  • Giving correct but unhelpful advice - for example, one of my fellow students emphatically smacked a couple of equations she wrote on the board during a group project, and proceded to have a go at me for not working through them myself, rather than politely explaining how she got them
  • Intellectual arrogance - for example, one student goes around, stands behind other students' computers and offers them assistance with their work regardless of whether they asked for it or not, almost as though trying to create an impression of omnipotence
  • Resistance towards work of a different format to what students have been accustomed to in the past - for example, writing reports as opposed to doing problem sheets
  • Expressing strong opinions almost in a way to try to attack my own
  • Defeatist and entitled attitude - one student who has done poorly in his assignments takes a negative attitude towards work, constantly complains about it and tries to convince others why the work is a waste of time and why there is little to be gained from it.

I can't help but feel a bit despirited at these traits others are expressing, considering how I am rusty on some things having taken a gap from academia and yet asking some questions seems to lead to unnecessarily hostile responses. It is also despiriting to realise how much of a maturity gap there is between me and the other students, and (unlike in my previous job) I am not in a position of authority to reprimand them for their behaviour or place them on any sort of misconduct procedure.

How can I explain to these other students the effect that their behaviour is having on me, and improve my working relationship with them?

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    Wondering if you might be better asking this over on Academia SE? – motosubatsu Jan 4 '19 at 10:04
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    Have your previous studies/work been largely solo ventures, involving none or very few cohorts? I'm not saying some of their attitudes are justified, but it is surprising that you have reached PhD-level education without encountering people like this before. How did you handle such people in the past? – user34587 Jan 4 '19 at 10:14
  • @Kozaky I simply tended to avoid working with people like that. During my undergraduate degree I tended to work with students who I found to help me quite a bit and who I enjoyed being around. I have encountered some abrasive individuals in the past but I have always been quite conflict-averse. – user71909 Jan 4 '19 at 10:19

I think you need to really step back, take a deep breath, and do some critical thinking before charging in with the hopes of solving the problems you're upset about with your cohorts:

  • Look in the mirror. Before evaluating/criticizing/complaining about others, be honest with yourself. Why and how do you find yourself in a position where you can point out their flaws, or evaluate their maturity? Is that even legitimate grounds to stand on? I'm sure your 5 years difference in age feels like an eon, but it's honestly not much of a gap. How are your own immaturities or self-image affecting your judgement of others? Are there things you do that may be triggering these behaviors in others, or things you do which they may not appreciate?

  • Focus on the real goals. What's your role in this group? Are you there to mold and develop the others? Are you there for your own growth? Or, are you there because together, you're supposed to be achieving some project or research goal? Every time something bugs you, ask yourself: In the context of my ultimate goal, does this annoying thing matter? I know it sounds trivial, but you need to learn to not sweat the small stuff. and, as per the common quip, it's almost all small stuff.

  • Let others take responsibility for themselves. You write as if you're at least indirectly responsible for helping others achieve the maturity you've already achieved. While that's noble, it also puts you in a very difficult position. And, it potentially robs those others of the chance to grow in a way that's best for them. Plus, you're introducing a double standard: You're offended by them trying to correct others from a position of expertise, yet that's exactly what you're trying to do yourself.

  • Look for the opportunities, not the problems. I'm sure all these other people are bringing value to the table, otherwise they probably wouldn't be in the lofty academic positions they're in. Sometimes, when you focus on the negative, you miss the positive. When one of these students bothers you, take the negative thought, set it aside, and look for the value in their statement. Find the opportunity to learn, and to accept that they're bringing something to the table.

Learning to deal with "difficult" people and still produce a good result yourself is incredibly valuable. And trying to correct the difficult person is just about the hardest and least productive way to proceed. You need to look for other ways of dealing with this besides getting them to change their own behaviors.

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  • These are all internal thoughts I have been having. I haven't actually attempted to voice my woes with any of the other students about this, because (a) we will only be in the same shared office for a few more months, and (b) I'm actually quite conflict-averse. I am aware of other insecurities about myself (and even sought expert advice) but I am humble enough to admit that I have things that I need to work on. – user71909 Jan 4 '19 at 19:56

Ignore them and carry on working in the way that you feel is most appropriate.

Don't let the other students' immaturity affect the standard of your work or approach any more than you can really help it.

If they interact with you in an inappropriate fashion, then simply respond in a calm, respectful manner and take the upper ground through professionalism. If that doesn't work, just mentally sigh and shrug it off as smoothly as you can.

A discreet raised eyebrow/eyeroll can communicate your empathy with any affected students.

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If someone stands behind you watching you, you get up, turn around, and ask them loudly “why are you standing there? Do you have nothing better to do? Are you practicing to become a PHB? “

The one “answering” without being helpful: “You could try to actually help instead of showing off”.

It’s all behaviours that are not going to help the person in the workplace, where the real money is made. Nobody gets hired for being smart. They get hired for advancing what the company needs.

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