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As pointed out in another question, the general tendency today as compared from classical times is to make junior professors (at assistant level) more and more independent. However, I wonder that assistant professors (common in the US university) supervise PhD students.

The philosophy of academic ranking is to prepare academics for academic/scientific tasks.

Although, academics normally have postdoc experience before their appointment as assistant professors, it is not mandatory. Moreover, postdoc experience is not experience conducive for the supervising of students.

In relation to the above is it wrong that an inexperienced assistant professor (who is not far from his PhD studentship days) can take control of one or several PhD students?

Does it reduce the quality of the education/research?

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How can not having supervised PhD students before be a hindrance? If that was the case then nobody would ever be allowed to supervise anyone. –  Tobias Kildetoft Apr 10 at 12:44
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@TobiasKildetoft I think the question intends to ask, "Is it appropriate for assistant professors to supervise PhD students alone?" In some places, PhD students working with an inexperienced advisor are also co-advised by another (more experienced) advisor. –  ff524 Apr 10 at 12:52
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The different customs re: who can supervise a PhD student in various countries, are discussed in some detail in Assistant professor vs Associate professor –  ff524 Apr 10 at 15:39
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Around here, a decent researcher would've supervised multiple lower-level (bachelor/master) students and their thesis already during their PhD studies, and would also be more on the 'bleeding edge' of their area research than most professors, so practical experience is not an issue. A more senior scientist might be better when they're available; while the junior one is almost as good but has far more time to devote to that student. –  Peteris Apr 10 at 17:05
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I have witnessed the situation @Peteris described, and even in a way that it was naturally continued in a way that one of the main responsibilities of postdocs was to provide guidance and support to PhD students - usually on a more frequent and concrete basis than the professor (due to time and presence constraints that professors often face). Hence, by the time a postdoc would become a junior professor, they would have gathered a sufficient amount of experience in co-guiding PhD students already. –  O. R. Mapper Apr 10 at 21:03

6 Answers 6

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Isn't it wrong that an inexperienced assistant professor (who is not far from his PhD studentship days) can take control of one or several PhD students? Don't it reduce the education/research quality?

For certain institutes I've been in, I would find myself asking the opposite question: isn't it wrong for senior professors to supervise students when they have little time for them?

Of course it is not always the case that full professors have no time for their students, but I have seen it happen many times: I've seen cases where students were meeting their official full professor supervisors once a month (or less frequently) and putting names of supervisors on papers that the supervisors had never read. This seems to me to be prevalent in research institutes where the hierarchy tree has a high branching factor to get value out of available funds (few Full Professors, lots of PostDocs / Assistant Professors, even more PhD students and Research Assistants, etc.); in such cases, the priority for senior professors is getting funding for and managing projects. In my case, when I was a PostDoc in such an institute, I was doing the day-to-day supervision of a number of students whose supervisor(s) had no time for them.

Of course it varies from place to place. But my hypothesis is that by the time you reach the Assistant Professor level, either you will have the necessary skills and personality to be a good supervisor, or you will probably never have those skills.

In summary: I don't believe that seniority amongst professors is a good predictor for quality of supervision.

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The "high branching factor" structure you describe sounds suspiciously like a pyramid, hmmm.... –  ff524 Apr 10 at 16:07
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Complete with slaves and everything! –  badroit Apr 10 at 16:53
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@ff524 is this phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1144 what you mean? –  Peteris Apr 10 at 16:55
    
@Peteris Nice one, yes! –  ff524 Apr 10 at 16:56

Isn't it wrong that an inexperienced assistant professor (who is not far from his PhD studentship days) can take control of one or several PhD students?

No, it is not wrong.

Don't it reduce the education/research quality?

Well, maybe. Supervising PhD students is a learning activity like most anything else. As such, it is to be expected that maybe when an assistant professor supervises her/his first student, s/he may do things that should would handle differently later on. But this is not tied to the status of the person, but to her/his experience in advising. So if you don't let assistant professors advise PhD students, they would start doing it later on and be equally bad in it, because when would they have learned how to do it?

An additional concern is that there are only so many full professors to go around. While I concede that working with a more senior professor may have advantages, these advantages would likely disappear if every senior professor has to handle significantly more students (as the entire 'advising force' of assistant professors falls away).

I should also add that, in general, assistant professors are not nearly as inexperienced as you seem to assume. Today, at least in my field (CS), there is hardly any assistant professor that did not have multiple years of postdoc experience, which also includes co-supervising master and PhD students. As such, I am not sure if the problem you seem to consider even exists.

Edit based on ff524's comment:

I think the question intends to ask, "Is it appropriate for assistant professors to supervise PhD students alone?" In some places, PhD students working with an inexperienced advisor are also co-advised by another (more experienced) advisor.

Yes, this is actually the case in many well-respected university (dutch universities come to mind right now). I think this is great if the main responsibility / load is still on the junior professor, with the senior person being more an advisor to the advisor than to the student. If the model degenerates into the junior professor basically being a proxy for the senior person, this seems counter-productive.

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Of course it's appropriate. In many research-intensive academic departments it's the assistant professors (the younger researchers) that are doing the innovative research.

I had several friends who worked with an assistant professor years ago. That professor later won a Nobel Prize for the work being done in his assistant professor days, with the help of those students.

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In many fields, Today's assistant professors are older and more experienced than they were in the past. By the time an assistant professor in math has a student start research they're typically 6+ years out from PhD (3-4 years of postdoc plus a couple years to settle before students are likely to ask). I think that means its pretty reasonable for assistant professors to take students.

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I am an assistant professor supervising two Ph.D. students. Everyone in my department seems to be happy with this.

It helps that there are senior faculty who are happy to give advice to me when needed!

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I'd rather say: it depends. The question can also be asked as: Is it appropriate for all professors to supervise PhD students?

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