I am interested in astronomy/astrophysics and cosmology. It is my understanding that choosing the best supervisor/team to work with for the PHD is more crucial than choosing the best (and most reputable) university.

If the above statement is correct. How can one identify the desired supervisors/teams? Probably the best way to to this is to read papers. The researchers that publish the most papers are clearly active in their field. But how can one, without even knowing these researchers find a way to locate the researchers who seem to be making good contributions to their field?

To put it in a simpler manner, does a website like arxiv.org and others have a way to identify the most active researchers (or teams that work on a specific problem)?

  • 5
    A good supervisor is not necessarily prolific, and prolific researchers are not necessarily good supervisors... however, if it's cosmology you're after, let me put in a good word for my own department (ICG Portsmouth). – astronat Oct 23 at 20:56
  • Why do you want the most repukable? You may risk getting famous and then they will never let you be on your own. – mathreadler Oct 24 at 8:46
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    @mathreadler that is a risk one should be willing to take at the prospect of working in the frontiers of scientific knowledge – user134132523 Oct 24 at 12:08
  • @user134132523 Hahahaha, yeah. – mathreadler Oct 24 at 12:18
up vote 11 down vote accepted

Most active does not mean most impactful or most influential. Reading papers on your own, you will have a hard time distinguishing good papers from mediocre work. Your best bet is to get recommendations from people who already work in that field. Ask professors at your own university for recommendations or opinions.

If you have a specific problem you are interested in working on, then it does make sense to search for papers on that problem and do your own reading. But you will still want to get advice from one or more people at your own institution who work in that area (or close to it).

Other answers suggested asking professors or asking students. I suggest you:

  1. Figure out what you want to do after your PhD, as specifically as possible
  2. Find people who are doing that
  3. Ask them who would be a good supervisor for your PhD

This strategy will get you the answer most customised to your needs.

Several of the answers suggest using Google Scholar or similar. Google Scholar will tell you which supervisors are producing nothing, but it will not tell you the difference between supervisors who publish a small amount of good work and those who do a lot of poor work but effectively manipulate the citation statistics.

  • Further to this answer, let me suggest that what you really want is a department and supervisor that will be of most help in developing your PhD and subsequent career. So try understanding that directly by looking into people who have studied at the relevant departments could be interesting. You could ask staff and students how PhDs have gone: how many completed at all or over how long. Getting current and former students feedback on supervisors would be great, if they are willing to share. – Keith Oct 24 at 3:28

Google Scholar and Research Gate are two general resources for finding a researcher's impact in their field. ArXiV also can provide some general information on who is recently publishing in the field. Individual/group websites can also provide some input as to the overall reputability of the professors in question.

I would consider compiling a small collection of universities you are most interested in on the whole, then researching the professors at those institutions. While university reputation is not an exact indicator of individual output and impact, the two topics are on the whole correlated. It is relatively likely that a well regarded university is going to have well regarded researchers as well.

Check their Google Scholar pages and see how many citations they receive and whether they have recent works etc. Check whether they participate in top tier conferences and published in top tier journals. Check their former students and try to find what they are doing / where they are working now.

Just to add to the other answers, once you have found a shortlist of possible supervisors you can ask their current/recent students for their opinion. Most academic departments will have contact details for current postgraduate students.

I myself am a PhD student and have happily answered a few queries about my supervisor.

Firstly, a good idea is to roughly estimate reputation through citation metrics. Determine 3-5 most reputable journals in your field of interest (typically that would include Nature & PhysRev Letters for physics). To find these journals, go through some major lab publication lists to compile the names, and then look up citation metrics for them. Look through your shortlist of labs & professors and you'll see some of them would get 2-3 papers in these per year, while others maybe can get there once per several years. Also you can directly look up citation metrics for professors on Google Scholar or similar services.

Now, while reputation and citation metrics are important, it tells little about their ability to handle PhD students. To get an idea about that, for each lab compile a list of recently graduated students and try to find where they are now. Are they at major world-known universities/labs? What are their positions - are they jumping from one postdoc to another for years, or do they have a more respectable position after just one or two postdocs? What did they publish while studying, are their papers in reputable journals, are they well-cited? And not the least important, how many years did it take them to graduate? If an average student spends 6+ years on their PhD, it's probably a red flag.

When researching publications, discard any conference & poster presentations - students can get plenty of those with very little effort. Look only for legitimate publications, and ensure they are well-cited (ignoring self-citations).

Typically, reputation of labs is well-correlated with university reputation. Of course, there are some dying labs in respected unis, there are some great labs in otherwise mediocre ones. But start from top universities. After reading through publications and citations for a few hours you'll pick up on familiar names and get the general idea about the major influencers.

Good luck!

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