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I have a very high expectation of a lab that I want to join and It's highly possible for me to eventually do that after my rotation period ends. The PI is the kind of person whom I have been looking for for so long. The only concern is that the PI doesn't have previous grad students and if I join I will be the very first grad student. I know there're a lot of benefits for being in that position and that's what I want. However, for being the first grad student, what issues/problems should I be careful about since I have no senior grad student to talk to for more experience? Thanks

NOTE: in Canada and the US, the term principal investigator (PI) refers to the holder of an independent grant and the lead researcher for the grant project - source: Wikipedia

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    PI? What is that? – RedSonja Feb 24 at 11:23
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    @RedSonja, it stands for the principal investigator, it refers to "the head of the research lab". – sapienswatson Feb 24 at 11:57
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    @sapienswatson "PI" used to be a fairly technical project-specific descriptor that had a meaning only within the context of a particular grant. These days (unfortunately in my view) its meaning has expanded to mean something else. Maybe kind of like how "Senator" had one meaning in the Roman republic, and another quite different meaning in the late empire. – Curt F. Feb 24 at 15:36
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    Every graduate student's needs are different; it takes a good deal of experience to pick up on them quickly. So, in your situation the "Three C's" are especially important: "communication, communication, communication" -- ask for (and give!) expectations and feedback early and often (until you two hit a groove). – Christian Clason Feb 24 at 22:40
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    @J... What? How could asking this question mean this position isn't right for the OP? How would a new grad student know all this valid points you've made if they haven't worked with a new professor? – Azor Ahai -him- Feb 25 at 17:56
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Speaking from the US perspective, there are a couple of pros and cons I can make:

CONS:

  • You will be the one who sets up a research environment (especially if you are only grad student of your PI, and no postdoc involves). Setting up the lab, the equipment, learning softwares, training newcomers will fall on you. And you will be expected to keep up with classes at the same time.

  • If your PI hasn't written a grant proposal before or doesn't have the grant to cover most expenses, you will feel the pressure getting useful data to support the proposal. This pressure will be more than what your peers feel. If their grant is not enough to fund you until the end of your MS/Ph.D., you will most likely end up in a stressful situation financially.

  • Even though you did your rotation with them, you probably do not have a clear idea about your PI's personality and won't have any students of them to ask.

  • Since your PI will not be tenured yet; if they cannot get tenure on time or their position is ended earlier than expected by the university, you might have to find another PI and even change your project completely.

  • The entire grad school experience might be lonely and isolating for you.

PROS:

  • You will have a lot of room to grow, and you will have more freedom about what you are doing compared to other graduate students.

  • You will learn the skills that other PhDs will probably learn in their postdoc years or later.

  • You will be involved and exposed to all aspects of research. This would be very valuable in both academia and industry.

  • New PIs are most likely to collaborate with other PIs, so there is a chance your name will end up in more publications compared to other graduate students.

  • Your PI will also grow with you, and there will be a learning curve for them too. It can be an excellent chance to establish a great friendship and support each other.

Overall, it is essential to establish a good working relationship and learn to say no when necessary. Do not be afraid to say when it is overwhelming or if you cannot handle it. In the end, you are the student, and they are the PI. They are there to support and advise you. I hope you have a great graduate school experience. :)

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    Adding on to this, one other pro is that often brand new professors have a backlog of ideas/projects from their postdoc times - the kinds of things they put in their research plans to land the professorship. Thus, your PhD project may be fully fleshed out and fully realized by the PI already. Students of more established faculty may have to drift for a while before finding a topic, or may be asked to do more incremental work based on the PIs existing research directions. – roger-reject Feb 25 at 4:28
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A few things come to mind:

  1. after you've graduated their recommendation letter (if you need one) may carry less weight than that of a more senior academic with a longer track record.
    • They probably also have a smaller professional network and cannot help you as much with finding opportunities afterwards than a more senior academic could.
  2. they may have less influence in the department
    • That generally shouldn't affect you, but if for some reson you ever get caught up in department politics it might.
  3. since they're just starting out, they may struggle to provide adequate facilities (if you're doing any experimental work) and you may need to spend part of your time setting up the lab.
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  • The first aspect (and potential minus) can be encountered by involving more senior collaborations in parts of the PhD research, who are then also potential recommendation letter writers. It might be a good idea to discuss this aspect with the advisor. – lighthouse keeper Feb 24 at 18:47
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I am in a similar situation, whereby I am my supervisor's first PhD student, and she has just started out as head of department. I find myself agreeing with the comment of Vibex, in the sense that your supervisor may struggle to support you with non-scientific endeavours, such as access to facilities and so on. I know this has been the case for me, even though my supervisor has introduced a lot of good change in the department.

With regards to the recommendation letter, I shouldn't worry too much, because you will work with other scientists of varying experience levels over the course of your PhD, and most senior scientists, if you have worked closely with them, will be happy to write you a letter of recommendation for jobs further down the line.

The one thing I would say is the worst about being the first grad student of a new faculty member in a senior position is that they may not be able to find as much time for you as you might like. I am lucky in the sense that my supervisor meets me (quasi) weekly. However our conversations are almost completely confined to this hour or two a week, it's not so easy to go and see her on a whim just in her office, like it is for the students of some of the less senior faculty members.

Nonetheless, it is impossible to have a perfect grad school experience without some mishaps, there are positives and negatives to every situation regarding supervision, research and training for the full 3-5 years! All the best :)

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  • I was also in a similar situation but one of the best things about my supervisor was that she always found time to discuss things with me. I don't think I would've got as much help from a more senior academic with a larger group. – Vibex Feb 25 at 8:03
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This may be country specific, but there are a couple of points I would make.

First, in the (UK) departments I know, there must be more than one faculty member involved in the supervisory team, and a completely inexperienced faculty member would not be allowed to lead (officially). It would be worth checking beforehand if there's a plan to have more faculty involved in the supervision, in what roles, and at what level. If possible, suggest faculty yourself (this could be difficult to do tactfully, as it may suggest to the PI that you don't trust their abilities and expertise: I would suggest something like "With our project, it might be interesting to consider doing X, but I know nothing about it. Could we involve Y in the supervision from the start so I can learn?").

Second, there are a number of directions that a lead supervisor should push a grad student on (such as day-to-day research, big picture research direction and future careers, profile raising activities like talks or posters, communication activities like papers, administrative issues and hoop-jumping like performance reviews or qualifying exams). The advantage of experienced supervisors (IMO) is that they are better at knowing what to push on and when. When less experienced, supervisors can put too much weight on everything at once, leading to too much pressure on the student.

One step to checking this is to have more experienced faculty involved with the supervision, as above. Another, particularly for the administrative hoop-jumping steps, is to have a strong network amongst the other grad students in the department or faculty. You mention that the PI has no other students: I assume the lab, or department more broadly, does. If so, make it a priority to connect with them, to find out timings and expectations, and build a support network. If there are no other students in the department I would say you're taking a very big risk joining the lab.

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In addition to some of the main points in the other answers, namely:

  • a junior faculty might not have as strong as an academic network as a senior faculty, which possibly limits your opportunities for conferences, jobs, etc down the line

  • from lack of experience, a junior faculty might be more at a loss of how to best guide you and help you through struggles

  • a junior faculty might have less lab resources, and in particular no senior students/postdocs to help guide you (this also limits a source of people for your network in the future)

I would add that, at least in a tenure-track system if the professor is pre-tenure:

  • a junior faculty may be under more pressure to produce for grants/tenure, putting extra pressure on you

  • if the junior faculty is denied tenure, you may either have to find another lab or move to another university

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Choose your committee wisely and be close to them. Many of the possible shortcomings of having a new advisor can be overcome by more established committee members. Example problems and how I've seen committee members help out:

  • Your advisor does not get tenure and needs to leave before you can graduate: You can get handed off to a senior committee member.
  • You need specialized resources such as lab tools: A more established committee member can share theirs.
  • You want or need introductions for your network: A more established committee member can introduce you to their former students and other connections.
  • Your advisor doesn't know how to mentor well: A more established committee member can advocate for you.
  • Your advisor doesn't know how departmental policies or politics: A more established committee member can help guide you.
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    What is this comittee? I had some referees coming for my phd defense but it was decided a few months bsfore the defense who they were. Do you mean something similar? – user111388 Feb 24 at 19:01
  • Most PhD programs in the US have a committee for the PhD student who must approve the person's progress at different points. For example, see Oregon State's page on the topic or this page for a UK example. – Richard Erickson Feb 24 at 23:02
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Congrats! This can be a very rewarding path to your degree, and you might learn to build a lab from the ground up.

Aside from all the great advice you've been getting, I would urge you to form your committee early, and meet fairly often -- at least once or twice a semester. This is always a good idea, but it's particularly important here. It can prevent unpleasant surprises, and bring in the benefit of more experienced investigators. You might also try to get at least one person with broad experience on to the committee.

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  • What is this comittee? I had some referees coming for my phd defense but it was decided a few months bsfore the defense who they were. Do you mean something similar? – user111388 Feb 24 at 19:02
  • @user111388 It varies by program. For mine (in a biological science in the US), I was supposed to have a committee of at least 5 faculty members (including the primary advisor and one of which had to be from an 'outside area' though inside the institution) assembled by the end of the first year (for an avg 5-yr program); they were involved in key early stages like approving the preliminary examinations that include a planned outline of the projects that will lead to the final thesis. – Bryan Krause Feb 24 at 19:33
  • Could you explain this in the answer (or state the country where this is the case)? Right now, I read it as such a comittee would exist in OP's program, but I cannot find a hint for that. – user111388 Feb 24 at 22:29

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