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My master's mentor was a PhD student in my university.

I had an interview in a Dutch University for a PhD position, and the committee made me feel weird about my former mentor being a PhD student. Although the University and my supervisor have said it was okay, I am still a bit worried about my chances.

Does having a PhD student as a mentor lower my chances?

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    In many countries, it's quite normal for PhD students to supervise, at least informally, master's students, intern etc. – Massimo Ortolano Feb 18 '18 at 15:25
  • @MassimoOrtolano Thank you for your answer. But what do you mean by "informally". My mentor also is grading my thesis, so do you think that is fine as well? – Brainiac Feb 18 '18 at 15:33
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    I mean that, in some countries, PhD students cannot appear officially – in the university records – as supervisors, but maybe other countries can officially recognize this role. – Massimo Ortolano Feb 18 '18 at 15:37
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    Your title and your question say different things. If you applied for a PhD position, it is not acceptable for another PhD student to be your mentor. If you have applied for a master's, it's quite normal. – padawan Feb 18 '18 at 16:03
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    @padawan it is however acceptable (as in, common practice in the Netherlands) that senior PhD students act as co-supervisor for fresh PhD students. Of course there is a PhD-holding supervisor, and grading of the thesis is up to an examination committee. Given the last point, I suspect that OP is indeed going for a master thesis. – Mark Feb 18 '18 at 16:33
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It is important here to distinguish between what is on paper and what is the day-to-day reality.

As other have mentioned already, it is common for masters students to be supervised on a daily basis by a PhD student. However, I have never heard of a PhD student being a formal supervisor for a masters student. I very much doubt that this is your case, but stranger things have happened.

What is far more common is that you are accepted for masters work at a lab/department/research group etc and the main supervisor (at least on paper) is the group leader. Then s/he may delegate the day-to-day supervision to a PhD student who is (hopefully) knowledgeable in your field. This is especially common if the group leader has a large group with many grad students, collaborations and possibly even administrative duties. None of this is of any detrimental impact to your chances to being accepted as a PhD student later down the line.

If you are in doubt, ask yourself the following questions:

  • who advertised the position?
  • who did I have to contact to be accepted to this position?
  • whose name will be on the first page of the thesis as a supervisor, once the thesis is formally written?
  • who is paying for the direct or indirect costs of my research?

If the PhD student tutoring you is the answer to all those questions, which I again doubt very much, then it may very well be so that people look at your future application with some hesitation, probably due to how uncommon and somewhat unrealistic this is.

There is however the possibility, if you are doing your masters at a company, that your formal supervisor is a PhD student, who also happens to be doing research at the company. But even then I would probably argue that formally there is a professor at some affiliated university or research institute who's the actual supervisor, at least on paper.

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Your experience has shown that it is a problem in at least one case. If you are applying to Dutch universities then, actually, having a PhD supervise a masters student is (in my experience) quite common. What might be uncommon is for a PhD student to officially supervise a masters student.

Your solution is to put down your official supervisor if they are not a PhD student as your actual supervisor, since I suspect that on your official masters documentation you will actually have written "under the supervision of assistant/associate/full professor X". You can mention in an interview that you also worked with a PhD student.

  • Thanks for your answer, it's clarified some points. My supervisor was a Uni professor, which is fine to my knowledge. To elaborate things, my Uni is German, and they've said "your mentor should have at least MSc degree". That's why I thought everything is normal, until I came across that interview and they made me feel like it's a mistake, or maybe I exaggerated things a bit. – Brainiac Feb 19 '18 at 10:51
  • I am a bit confused about the situation, perhaps you can edit your question to clarify. Your supervisor was a Professor who was also a PhD student? I've never come across this before. – Dr. Thomas C. King Feb 19 '18 at 11:00
  • no, my thesis was done outside of the University. In the University I have to pick a supervisor, who must be a professor. Where I did my thesis, in that institute, there was a mentor who was a PhD student. I hope that could clarify things a bit. – Brainiac Feb 19 '18 at 11:15

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