I'm in a conundrum! Which one should I choose for my PhD in life sciences in the US: a great-fit advisor in a mediocre institution VS an OK (or potentially ill-fit) advisor in a prestigious institution?

I know it sounds obvious ---go with the good match (I also want this at heart)! BUT I also know that pedigree matters A LOT when applying for grants / conferences / publishing during and after PhD (unless you're back into a stellar institution for your post-doc* I guess?).

(*) I assume I can find a good-match advisor in my post-doc in a stellar institution, despite the mediocre PhD institution label on my CV, if I publish a couple high-impact papers with this good-match PhD advisor.

Background: I already have a master's from a super high-prestige institution in the US and I have a very specific research interest and goal** (so, I might be less malleable than a lot of fresh out-of-undergrads who are also applying for these PhD positions). My goal is to become a professor (I think it's an awesome job, you get paid for following your passion!).

(**) the well-match advisor is also on board and excited about this goal in particular, my vision in general. We chat multiple times on this topic; we really click well with her! Also people in her lab seem very happy and she is VERY passionate in her research, which is good because I am too!

Thanks for your help and insights in advance!

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    It sounds like you already understand the competing factors. It's really up to you to weigh these and it's not clear what random people on the internet can add to that. – Thomas Jan 10 '19 at 18:26
  • You'll find it easier to get a job if you've done good work during the PhD, you'll do better work if you're happy and you'll be happier the better your relationship with your supervisor. – astronat Jan 10 '19 at 22:07

There are some undefined terms here, so it is hard to give a definite answer: mediocre, for example. But there is some general guidance.

What do you want to shoot for as a career? Do you want to do research in an R1 at the expense of all else? And a top-name R1 at that? Nice goal, but few achieve it. But studying at a top institution gives you some background for that. Or do you want to teach and otherwise do some good?

There is very little worse in a doctoral program than having a bad advisor. But bad means someone who isn't very interested in your work or is hostile to you or your ideas in some ways. Browsing around this site gives many examples of the horrors.

Having a high prestige advisor, from a high prestige institute (or not) will be a help for you in getting your first job, but it will decline after that quite rapidly and you will stand on your own. On the other hand, if the advisor, from wherever is connected to many others in the field, you can enter into many fruitful collaborative arrangements through the advisor and these will serve you throughout your career.

But the high prestige advisor may be too busy to give you the help you need, or, since you have your own ideas already, too disinterested to help you when you really need it.

But, it would be good to think long term about what you want, and the best choice will depend fundamentally on that, not the other factors you mention.

  • Thanks for your prompt answer, Buffy. Just to be clear: both institutions I mention here are R1, it's just that the "mediocre" one is less well-known internationally (I am an international student, so I care about this). And yes, I definitely want to do research in an R1 university (as a PhD student, post-doc, or a professor). Reason for this is that I am sacrificing a lot to be in the US, and if I'm going to be doing research in anywhere less than an R1, I might as well just go home (and actually see my parents aging). – qwerty Jan 10 '19 at 15:09
  • @qwerty: The job market in most academic disciplines is bad enough that you should not sacrifice to be in grad school. At the end of the day, chances are that you will have sacrificed for nothing. – Alexander Woo Jan 10 '19 at 20:33

It very much depends on what you mean by "well-matched" and "ill-matched". Do you mean well-matched in terms of your research interests, or well-matched in terms of your personality, outlook and supervision needs?

I would definitely recommend prioritizing the second over the first. That is, it is better to do a PhD on a slightly different topic to what you wanted with a good supervisor, than something that exactly matches your interests, but with a less to supervisor.

Doing a PhD with a well-regarded supervisor or at a prestigious institution will definitely give you a boost in terms of getting your first position post-phd, but you have to make it that far and still want the career. Many either don't finish, or do, but are thoroughly fed-up with research. Nothing wrong with this at all, and there are many fulfilling paths to pursue after a PhD than academia, and what is more, you can't possibly know at this point what you'll really want when you graduate. But your chances of finishing, or finishing and still loving research, are much less with a less-than-supportive supervisor, irrespective of the institution.

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