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I'm looking to complete a senior thesis (I would also want to do other research, but I doubt the viability of this) as an undergrad and I need help understanding how I would go about choosing the research advisor.

I am not really looking to do a masters/PhD as of right now, although this may change in a couple years. As of right now, I plan to go into the commercial market after college and would like to optimize for this.

Talking to some people in the workforce, I was told it would be very helpful to have a good thesis with an advisor that is well-known (high status) in the field. However, this seems to go against the prevailing sentiment on this site (1, 2). Why is it better to find a new prof rather than using a well-known prof?

Another problem is that undergrad research seems to be very infrequent (so there are maybe only 1 or 2 people I can ask about any specific prof a la this suggestion), so sampling bias is a large concern.

The third, and perhaps greatest concern, is I'm not sure what subfield I would like to work in (finishing all the lower division courses taught me almost nothing of actual use about the field, as there was a lot of hand-holding in those courses). Talking to some other students who went through this before me, I have heard that one should take a class with the professor before asking them to be one's research advisor (I thought this was BS and tried reaching out to profs, but got stonewalled - this seems to be systemic in my uni/dept). This only gives me a couple terms to take classes with different professors, trying to select classes where I get to both explore the field and get a good prof to research under. However, professors that tend to be more famous tend to teach more specialized classes where I don't get to explore as much. I am ok with pushing by GenEds out to take more classes in my major and explore right now, but am unclear on how to proceed beyond just choosing something that has an interesting title, hoping I'll like one of the 4 shots I have, and running with the best of the lot.

Any advice would be helpful.

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Talking to some other students who went through this before me, I have heard that one should take a class with the professor before asking them to be one's research advisor (I thought this was BS and tried reaching out to profs, but got stonewalled - this seems to be systemic in my uni/dept).

Well, take it from a professor's point of view. They received an email from a student they don't know, who's only vaguely interested in their work. If you don't even know what subfield you're interested in, it's hard to write a convincing email explaining why you're interested in their work.

Mentoring an undergraduate is a time investment, not a time saver. So professors like to see motivated students who understand the problems they work on in their lab, which is part of the answer to your question below.

Why is it better to find a new prof rather than using a well-known prof?

Some people might say that older professors are busy as heck, and a newer professor might have more time to invest in a promising undergrad. Unfortunately, with COVID, finding a professor with time for an undergrad will be harder.

However, this isn't universal, and you should talk to previous students before assuming a professor is a good or bad mentor.

In summary, identify a few top professors, take their classes (as was suggested), and do well. That's at least a foot in the door to open the conversation.

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    The older/newer contrast probably doesn't apply broadly. There are plenty of senior researchers, especially those nearing retirement, that could actually be perfect fits for an undergraduate as they wind down some of their ambition a bit. On the other hand, a newer professor on a tenure clock crunch may have little time at all, especially as they juggle responsibilities between teaching courses they haven't taught before (including designing from the ground up) while trying to build a sufficient research program for tenure.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 13 '20 at 22:36
  • I think @BryanKrause has a better handle on how busy folks are at different points in their career than as expressed in this answer. I seldom suggest anyone take an untenured faculty member as an advisor. But the answer is correct about stonewalling unknown students.
    – Buffy
    Jul 13 '20 at 23:01
  • How would you decide which subfields' classes to take? How would I identify top profs (beyond just looking up keynote speakers?
    – user760900
    Jul 13 '20 at 23:30
  • My advice is to worry less about that at the start. Find some professor with whom you have worked and you have some mutual trust. Then work with them to find a mutually acceptable topic. You are using early optimization to your own detriment. You are making the perfect into the enemy of the good.
    – Buffy
    Jul 13 '20 at 23:32
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    @Bryan Fair enough. I was answering the broader question of "why do people recommend this" but it wasn't clear. Jul 14 '20 at 0:09

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