I'm in a highly ranked science PhD program, but my department has this odd self-deprecating culture where conversations can quickly turn into who least deserves to be in the program and who sucks the most at science.

I especially have a couple of friends who cannot stop putting themselves down about everything, like their cooking. And it's frankly exhausting to listen to the two of them talk because it's a race to the bottom, even with me trying to intervene and tell them they're good at what they do!

Sometimes I just want to grab them and shake them and say "You're in this program! You are a very smart and qualified person!" But that doesn't seem very productive.

How do I respond in a way that is encouraging?

  • 1
    This question might be helpful: How to respond to self-deprecating remarks. We also have this question which is about looks, but the general ideas in the answers might be useful for this situation too.
    – Em C
    Jan 8, 2020 at 17:05
  • @EmC Hmm, I'm not sure that first question is quite the same intent on the deprecator's part. Jan 8, 2020 at 17:07
  • Hm, in what way? Adding info about what you suspect their intent is (and why you suspect that) will probably help you get better answers :)
    – Em C
    Jan 8, 2020 at 17:40
  • @EmC Unfortunately, I'm not really sure, other than maybe feeling like bragging is gauche? Jan 8, 2020 at 19:03
  • 2
    All, please don't answer in comments - if you have advice to give, write it in an answer (and check out our FAQ for answering if you haven't yet!).
    – Em C
    Jan 9, 2020 at 17:15

2 Answers 2


I used to be big on self-deprecating remarks. Then one of my friends complained, "Hey! You're bad-mouthing my best friend, and I won't stand for it!" I can't say it cured me instantly, but after a number of comments along those lines, I cut back a lot. Now, years later, I generally reserve self-deprecating remarks for areas where I really do struggle and fail.

Of course, you may need to do some adjustment for your situation, but something like that might possibly work, depending on the people you try it on. Another comment in that series was from a different friend, who asserted, "You're a better programmer than I am. Are you trying to say I'm horrible at programming? Do I need to look into a career change?"

I've not personally tried this on other people, except for a two individuals these same friends were already working on. I can't properly speak to the risks involved, I can only say it worked for me, and didn't work for one of those other people. The primary instigator for both the course of treatment for me and the two other people later married the person who it didn't work on, so there were pretty clearly no hard feelings there. But that's just two people, selected by one person with better social skills than I'll probably ever have.


Short answers: 1. Tell them to trust the people who put them in their position! 2. Help them see that all systems of evaluation are quite limited.

  1. One thing that helped me, was to attribute my perceived shortcomings not only to me. If you actually fail hard (which happens less than people like to say), then it is not solely you that is responsible. In a "highly ranked science PhD program" there were people in the beginning who made a judgement call on whether to give you (them) the position or not. If they don't really have trust in themselves, it may help to remind them that other people have positively evaluated them in the very beginning. Imposter Syndrome is real, and it can have a bad impact on peoples lives (paper, paper) Remind them, that the senior people saw something in them, otherwise they would not be there in the first place! Maybe next time they tear themselves apart, you may ask something in the lines of:

"So you think fancy Prof. X is quite a fool to have given you this post? Do you think with X years of experience he/she has not learned how to bet on the fast horses?! You think (their idol/mentor) doesn't know what he/she is doing?!"

You basically externalize the judgement a bit.

  1. University is not everything. People in general have a tendency to fall for whatever gives them a measurable feedback (grades, money in your account, Stack-Exchange-Karma etc., Likes). All these systems of evaluation are foolishly simple. Next time they express their sorrow of not excelling in one particular one of these foolish systems, open their horizon to the rest of the world. There are people who have the best grades, but pretty much fail in all other forms of their lives..

You put their percieved failure into greater context, allowing them to see the bigger picture, and help them to relax a bit.

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