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Past advice suggests that potential PhD students should be wary of attending schools with only one professor in their subfield. If you have problems with your advisor and want to switch, having that option would be invaluable.

But what if your subfield is not represented that well in the vast majority of departments? Almost all schools I'm considering applying for only have one professor in my intended research area. I'm a MS student at the moment and I'm sure what general subfield I'd like to do my PhD research in.

Should I just accept that this is how things are and try to check whether a professor and I would be good matches before accepting? Or should this make the few schools with more than one professor in this subfield more attractive? To be clear, every school I will apply to will have top researchers in this subfield. The comparison is more between a school with one top researcher and one newer researcher and another school with one top researcher and no one else in the subfield. The majority of schools are in the latter group.

I'm tempted to think that hiring committees avoid hiring additional faculty in my subfield if they already have one professor doing research in the area. They have their token professor and that's enough for them. Never mind that the professor's personality, perspective, and research methods matter!

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3 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

As the author of the original answer, I suppose some further clarification is appropriate. The issues are:

  1. Are you willing to work on a topic outside of your intended subfield?
  2. Does your program assign students directly to a research supervisor at the time of admission?

If the answer to both questions is "no," then you have a potential problem on your hands, and then you should be very cautious. However, if you are willing to move outside your intended subfield if there are no positions available, or if you're guaranteed entry to the desired research group at the time, it's not nearly as serious a situation.

That said, if you only want to stay in your subfield, and it's only represented by one faculty at most institutions, then you'll need to do due diligence and figure out who will be the best fit for you, both in terms of research but in terms of "fit." A significant concern would then be: "Whose advising and supervision style best meshes with my own preferences?"

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Thanks. I especially wanted your perspective as you made me think of this issue. I understand in the US that students usually apply for the dept. and then pick an advisor later. I am in the US, but perhaps my experience has misled me. I essentially applied to my MS advisor, and I would not have gone here if he did not accept me. –  JEs9X May 3 '12 at 15:48
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It sounds like this subarea might be somewhat marginalized in the larger area the department represents, and this is consistent across universities. Why is that ? is the subarea not particularly popular, or interesting, or does it lack the ability to get funding ? In all these case, you do have to ask yourself whether the risk of getting into such an area is worth it.

But on the more direct question of whether you should favor the few schools that have more than one professor, the right question is: what are you planning to do after a Ph.D ? And in what way can this professor (or professors) help with that goal ? If you want to go into academia (say), are these professors the dominant players in the area ? and so on.

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This subfield is neither fashionable or easy (too much math and programming for most), which probably explains the low popularity. I anticipate no significant difficulties with funding or job placement (I won't enter academia) because the demand for PhDs in the area exceeds the supply. You've misread me on one point. Every school I am considering has excellent research. But should prefer a school with one top researcher and one newer (not established) researcher to another school with only one top researcher (and no one else)? –  JEs9X May 3 '12 at 13:36
In that case, one side channel is to look at the recent trajectory of grad students from those profs. are the students active ? have people recently got jobs ? is there a way of talking to any of them ? –  Suresh May 3 '12 at 15:13
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Yes, having other professors in your subfield is a benefit. You and your advisor might have a falling out, or some freak tragedy could befall your advisor, or your advisor might leave for a job elsewhere and not get you an adequate (or any) offer to bring you.

But that doesn't make it an absolute necessity, since there are plenty of other really important things to consider. You should consider it a plus at the institutions that have two, but only you can evaluate how big a plus.

You should also think about ways to mitigate the problem at other places. For instance, there might be people in related areas, even if not your exact subfield, who are close enough to potentially supervise you, especially if they're switching in half-way through your PhD. Or there might be other faculty in the area near-by, at other schools in easy reach, who might at least be able to help out if something happens.

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