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I have a quick question about choosing a PhD advisor. I know they are some threads on this but my question is a little more specific.

How important is it that your PhD advisor is an experienced, well-known faculty member?

There is a new professor that is coming to my school this fall. She will officially have her PhD in May. However, she studies almost exactly what I have wanted to focus on ever since I was in high school. Now, I won't start doing research until after I pass my qualifying exams- so I have about a year.

My goal has always been to teach at college. I am really, really good at teaching and have received lots of money and numerous awards for doing so. So many college professors are disconnected from students and simply do not know how to teach and this is something I have been extremely passionate about.

I am not trying to become some world famous mathematician. So, given this, is choosing an advisor this young a bad idea? Is it looked down upon in academia, and does anyone have any experience with this?

I am looking forward to your answers.

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    I'm confused by your post. Are you in math? In math, it is almost unheard of for someone to become a professor at research university straight out of getting a PhD. If this is the case, I would say she is very exceptional.
    – Kimball
    Apr 25 at 14:35
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    Are there any possibilities of having 2 advisors, the junior and a more senior one? This is quite common in some countries/fields (in France, the junior one wouldn't even be allowed to be your sole advisor). Did you look at other criteria than topic+seniority? Apr 25 at 15:25
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    I got my Ph.D. in 1970; my adviser got his Ph.D. in 1968. But I also had a recommendation from a very well-known senior mathematician. And I'm pleased with how my career is going. Apr 25 at 20:05
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    My advisor was a fairly new professor. They were around my age, not yet tenured, and not even in my area of specialization (they essentially replaced my well-known, experienced, but abusive ex-advisor). In fact, I didn't have a single tenured faculty member on my committee, and - to my knowledge - none of them were well-known in the research world. Still...I graduated, got the job I actually really wanted, and am overall content with my professional accomplishments. Experienced, well-known professors can certainly be helpful, but your success is ultimately determined by your own efforts.
    – Ace
    Apr 26 at 18:12
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    @Kimball: while it is not common, almost unheard sounds like too much. I personally know several cases, in the US, in Canada, and in Europe. Apr 26 at 18:14
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The biggest disadvantage here is that her first priority will be, and needs to be, her own quest for tenure. If that comes in conflict with your needs, say just time for research and publishing, then you will wind up with little help.

Another disadvantage is that, as a new and untested academic, she won't have the name recognition that you might want when it comes time to start your own career. That is less important, as you can establish other relationships with more senior faculty along the way who can also help.

A third disadvantage, perhaps even less important, is that she has little experience in advising doctoral research and may not yet be comfortable with it. Some advisors give too much "help" and some too little. But you don't really have a way to predict (from talking to other more advanced students) how she will interpret the task.

But, none of the above is necessarily a problem. It is just something to keep in mind. Being able to work in a subfield that really interests you is a good thing, but getting finished successfully is more important.

Moreover, the advice here is colored by my bad experience with an untenured advisor who provided little real help. Eventually I moved to a senior professor (at a different university) and had a much better experience.

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    In the first issue, the conflict potential can potentially be reduced if the professor has a "win-win" mindset: helping their PhD student succeed will lead to more (co-authored) papers and, therefore, also help their tenure case. Surely there are unhelpful professors at all career levels, so it's worth having a clear discussion about expectations before signing up for a particular advisor. Apr 25 at 18:42
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    Of course, if all students seek out only experienced advisors, no new advisor will ever become experienced.
    – Polygnome
    Apr 26 at 9:08
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Just to give contrast with @Buffy's list of disadvantages:

  • new professors are often full of energy and enthusiasm
  • they will probably start with a small number of students, so you may get extra attention
  • they may have better rapport with you since it hasn't been long since they were graduate students themselves
  • the exact match of research area seems like a big bonus
  • as you suggest, the lack of prestige/ranking of your advisor is unlikely to be as big a deal when looking for teaching rather than research positions

The only disadvantage I see in addition to @Buffy's list is that a new faculty member might be a bit overwhelmed with all the new things they have to take on (teaching, admin, research, in addition to graduate advising).

All that said, IMO the most important characteristic of a graduate advisor is a good match in terms of personality/mentoring style/expectations. Hopefully you will have a chance to speak/interact with them more to find out about these things before choosing your supervisor.

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    My thoughts run along these lines too more than on @Buffy 's. And that was true even before I knew who had written this post. Apr 25 at 1:32
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    It's a risk-reward thing. Choosing a new professor is like choosing a gambling game with higher standard deviation. Best and worse case(s) are further spread and there is less information to approximate the result. Weigh that against the possible benefits from a better fit and you get somewhere close to "do whatever you think is right".
    – DonQuiKong
    Apr 25 at 9:05
  • @DonQuiKong I agree with the higher standard deviation but I would say that the mean still comes out above the mean for senior professors mostly because of the first two bullet points in the answer. It's just that with the senior ones you have a better chance to find out beforehand how they are.
    – quarague
    Apr 25 at 16:46
  • +1 for 'the most important characteristic of a graduate advisor is a good match'!
    – chris
    Apr 25 at 17:06
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    And math is a young person's game ;-)
    – PatrickT
    Apr 26 at 19:50
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I'm soon to graduate from my PhD, and I was my supervisor's first student. He was on a research only grant and he had a lot of time for me, we ended up working closely together and I feel like I've benefited a lot from this. I'll be applying for postdoctoral research jobs soon, and I have a number of publications and I feel like I'm in a strong position to apply. I think it worked out well for me that I was my supervisor's first student, I know a lot of other students whose supervisors had more responsibilities and less time to work with them. I can see different ways in which I may have benefited from having a more experienced supervisor, but I'm pretty independent generally and I'm used to finding my own path with things so I don't feel like this had too much of a negative effect on me.

Personally I think it's more important that you find someone you think you can get along with well, than someone who has more or less experience

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    But did your advisor just get his PhD when he started advising you? There's a big difference between being a fresh PhD, and having been a facutly+postdoc for a few years who hasn't yet had any students. Of course there's a lot of individual variation as well.
    – Kimball
    Apr 25 at 14:38
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    Oh I see, yes you are correct that he had spent some years in postdoctoral positions before supervising me. I agree that this is relevant.
    – Joe
    Apr 25 at 17:01
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First of all, it depends on your character. Some people like to follow large trends and be part of larger teams, some other prefer niche research.

Some prefer to work on their own, some expect their advisor to be around to advise.

Now to your question

How important is it that your PhD advisor is ...

I will break it into two parts

... an experienced [faculty member],

In my case his knowledge of the academic topic did not matter much. I was pushing my own research in an area where there were not many people and my advisor was an expert only on the "context" of my research (for instance he knew particle physics, but not the neural networks based research I was doing on the results (this was at a very early stage of that topic)).

... well-known faculty member?

That was important in my case because my research was niche and I needed someone courageous enough to stand by me. He was extraordinary in this role, I was very, very grateful to him for that.

He was also very experienced in the academic world, so he knew how the PhD would work out, which general lectures to attend, etc. He was also very helpful when managing the frictions between me and the feudal part of academia (one of the reasons for which I left academia). I owe him a lot.

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This sounds like a bad idea for both of you, and hence I suspect the question is largely academic since the person may not be willing to take on a student (and the university may not permit them to be a primary advisor).

First, if someone is a new faculty member they will already be taking on a lot of responsibilities they haven't had before, and they will need to get used to managing their main duties before taking on anything extra.

Secondly, if someone is fresh out of a PhD they typically haven't yet demonstrated that they can manage their own research independently, let alone yours.

Now there is absolutely no reason why someone has to have experience advising research students before, or needs to be a well-known figure, to have a successful PhD student. And a graduating student will be judged on the papers they have produced, not on their advisor. However, I think it's vital for an advisor to have a reasonable amount of independent research experience.

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  • Part of this may be right, but (at least in my experience) it would be unusual for a department to hire someone as a full faculty member and put conditions on their ability to take graduate students. Such conditions are often put on people who have associate membership in the department ...
    – Ben Bolker
    Apr 27 at 0:36

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