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I am interested in a PhD project which will be supervised by somebody who has never supervised a PhD student before. In fact, this research group is not yet completely established. On their website they mention that this research group is starting to work in this new department very soon (the exact date is known, but I am not sharing for the sake of confidentiality).

When the department starts to be open soon, this project (advertised PhD position) will be the first project they will be working on.

Although I like this project, I am not sure how risky it is to do your PhD in a newly open group with inexperienced supervisors. What are the risks? Also, are there any potential benefits apart from risks?

Update 1 (based on the comment by @lighthousekeeper): On their website, they have shared a Resume of the supervisor where I could only see the section "Master thesis topics I supervised". As I did not see anything about PhD, I drew this conclusion that the supervisor may have never supervised a PhD student.

Update 2 (based on the comment by @Buffy): Yes this is a new department (in fact still about to be open, so not yet completely open). The university was established 35 years ago (so relatively new). Yes, I think the department is pretty small.

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All of @cheersmate's points are valid, but I will try to put a couple of pros across too - I myself am in this position and have had a very positive experience so far (20 months into a 36 month programme). Some advantages can be:

  • You might get much more hands-on involvement (or offers of support) because it is in the supervisor's interest for the project to go well (as opposed to someone who's already supervised X other students and can blame a bad outcome on the student).
  • It's likely that the supervisor will seek more outside advice themselves and therefore be more thoughtful and tap into more collective wisdom than someone who's "been there, done it". At our university, first-time supervisors are required to have a co-supervisor anyway; this second adviser might be less specialised in terms of the details, but have a good sense about the broader PhD process.
  • If you (the student) are well organised and focussed you can possibly have more influence on the direction of reseach and in the general setting of ground rules, expectations, routines, communication, etc. Again this is in contrast to a more experienced supervisor who might say "this is how we do it"
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    I also think it is possible to build a close collaborative relationship with the advisor and others that can extend into the future beyond the degree. A circle of collaboration is very valuable. – Buffy May 31 at 14:53
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    Another point to add (which was highlighted as a big pro to me when I was applying for PhD programmes): if you are a student of a Big Name, some people might assume some/most/all your work is their work. If you are working with a less experienced supervisor, it is less likely others will attribute your work to your supervisor at a cursory glance at the author list. – penelope Jun 1 at 12:49
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    As the only PhD student of a new PI, I was sent to all the conferences, got introduced to all the guests and contacts, and had a whale of a time. I have more academic contacts from then than from my longer postdoc in a more established lab. These are mostly the advantages of a small lab, rather than new. In large labs, there may be quite a few rungs in the hierarchy, and you'll be at the bottom. – Guest Jun 3 at 19:25
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From my (personal) experience, here are some of the risks:

  • Small network: established PIs usually have quite a few other PIs and groups with which they collaborate. This is very important not only for good research which will end up in high-impact venues, but also for future career options. Young PIs usually have a much smaller (sometimes nonexisting) network.
  • Busy with other things: young PIs may be pre-tenure, and so their focus may be more on pursuing their goals (e.g., related to running projects) than for your career. The more established PIs I know usually put much more work into making sure their students build a good career for themselves and reach their individual goals on their way to becoming an independent researcher.
  • Transition from postdoc to PI not completed: there can be issues resulting from the time the new PI needs to adjust from a more hands-on role of actually performing research themselves to the more guiding role of a PI. In some fields, these two can be very different, and being effective as the former doesn't guarantee that they are in the latter.
  • Related to the three above: no research vision developed yet. If you look at established labs with high performance, you'll find that there is a very clear focus of the lab (one or maybe two topics or questions). That makes it relatively easy for new students to become productive: when you join, you read the last 2-10 papers from the group and know exactly what is going on, and what you will be working on. Young PIs often haven't found their overarching topic yet, and sometimes this means there is no clear research focus. This can be frustrating on several levels, most importantly it means the research output isn't as good as it could be because you need to learn about a new sub-sub-field very few months.
  • Most importantly IMHO: you don't know what to expect because there is no data you can look at. That is, you don't have people that you can ask what kind of supervisor they are (which may or may not fit well with your expectations and personality), how long it takes for students to graduate, and so on.

I joined a lab as one of the first students myself. I don't think I would recommend it if you don't (at least) know the PI from lectures etc. and know if they generally are a pleasant human being to work with. If that is the case, I would say it really depends on the career goals.

Since this was all rather negative and you asked about opportunities, too: of course it can happen that as the first student you have a lot of flexibility and can help in shaping the research agenda so it ends up close to what you're interested in. But this really depends on a lot of factors, and you have no guarantee (or even an estimate regarding how likely it is) that this will happen.

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    Many of these points will differ a lot depending on the persons involved. For example, a recently hired assistant professor with significant post-doc expertise (maybe in different countries) might have a larger network than a professor who always stayed at their home university. They might have convinced the hiring committee by having a strong research vision, significant co-supervising experience, and being on top of their game research-wise, potentially more than some old professor is. – lighthouse keeper May 31 at 13:54
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    @lighthousekeeper I agree. But these are risks. I want to be clear about them since I expected to experience the advantages the Felix U describes, and I did not. – cheersmate May 31 at 14:45
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    In the end, the summary most likely will be "just like with any supervisor, it can be good or bad". – cheersmate May 31 at 14:48
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    A pre-tenure advisor is HIGHLY interested in your success. A succesful PhD is an important point for his/her quest! – Vladimir F Jun 1 at 7:25
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    @cheersmate: extreme? I’d call it criminal. I would fire that professor if I were running that department. Abuse is never OK. Anyway, the comment was related to you saying that young PIs are “busy with other things”. I think it’s the other way around. – Cris Luengo Jun 2 at 18:46
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New PIs will usually have strong research goals. You won't have as much freedom in selecting the direction and topic of your research, because the PI is also thinking about these things and has something in mind. Conversely the PI is normally familiar with latest research trends and has skin in the game (they need to publish and get their name out too) so it might not actually be bad to follow their thoughts on where the research should go - just understand that the PI will not be dispassionate about what you work on and have strong feelings about it. It of course depends a lot on the person, you should carefully screen them for a good fit with you based on how they see their field, what their goals are and how they plan to reach them.

They will be less distanced from the nitty gritty of research so they will be more willing and able to offer you hands on technical advice. As PIs spend more time being PIs, they do less research themselves, become more interested in theory than practice, and so dealing with practical problems in your research becomes more and more your own problem. An established PI might offer technical guidance as well, if for example the technical matter in question has theoretical interest for them so they're familiar with it, or simply because it happens to be a hands on PI. So if this is important to you, you shouldn't assume based purely on them being new or not, but screen them specifically on how hands on they will be.

Newer professors generally have less pull in departmental matters, conferences and grant committees. In my opinion, this sort of "pull" is a bit like credit scores - if you've got very little then many things become very hard, but you don't get much benefit as a student from your PI excelling in it. So I would say your goal is to determine just whether your prospective PI has sufficient pull to function, so to speak.

They will have less experience but also more enthusiasm as far as mentoring. You may very well end up being the student with whom they make a lot of their mistake. This isn't necessarily fatal, but don't expect a new PI to be this all-knowing, infallible oracle. You'll have to learn the ropes yourself as much as they show them to you. But also over time, PIs tend to mellow out and care less about doing a perfect job with every student and focus more on realism over idealism. You can translate this into a young PI will push you more to do things they believe will make you succeed (whether correctly or not) and will have stronger feelings about how you operate.

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    I'm not sure why the first two paragraphs would be valid. – Buffy May 31 at 22:24
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    I think the first two paragraphs describe the typical trajectory in the natural sciences very well where the PI transitions from doing 100% of the research legwork (during their postdoc) to 0% of the legwork (as an established professor who only does high level managing). Often (but not always of course) a young PI will start this transition by handing over research projects that get carried out by someone else under close supervision. – user2705196 Jun 1 at 13:39
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    "don't expect a new PI to be this all-knowing, infallible oracle" -- you shouldn't expect that of any PI, or any person. – Cris Luengo Jun 2 at 17:00
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I just finished a PhD as the first PhD student for my advisor (though she had been on PhD committees before). I found that I had a really good graduate school experience because I got more of her attention, and collaborated with her on a lot of papers. As others have noted, there's no one to talk to about whether they're a good advisor, so you have to try to evaluate that yourself—in my program, we had on-campus interviews as well as a number of phone calls before I committed and I was able to get a pretty good feel that we'd work well together (and we did).

I would recommend putting a more-experienced faculty member on your committee, though—I did, and it was really helpful because he knew how to navigate the system and what the logistics were—especially helpful towards the end with comps, defense scheduling, etc.

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From the other answers, by now you should see that there isn't a specific guarantee that any risk will be present or absent. While new professors might have a more limited network, odds are they have a more dynamic set of contacts, and may even have more relevant contacts.

Other items seem to also follow this pattern.

When you find that the data is inconclusive, then it's inconclusive. I'd focus more on the specific professors in mind, and avoid the generalizations.

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The major risk of an inadequate supervisor is that you will spend several years working on something, and ultimately fail to get a PhD. You will end up with regrets about wasting your time, money, and energy. There are some students who do get a PhD in these circumstances - those who can do research from scratch and write a decent thesis without any help or guidance. But the others will struggle, and eventually give up.

Basically, your job is to figure out whether or not your supervisor is likely to be competent. It's best to figure this out before you spend several years of your life working on a PhD.

Advice:

  • Speak to any past students or collaborators (MSc, undergraduates, anyone). Ask who really did the work? Would they describe the supervisor as highly knowledgeable and skilled? Would they personally spend the next 5 years working with this person?

  • Gather as much data as you can about the supervisor. Read any papers they have written. Ask them questions about the content of the papers. Probe their knowledge.

  • Talk to the supervisor. Ask them specifically what you will be doing. If they say, "I don't know / you have to figure it out yourself / you can decide after the first year", this is a red flag. Likewise if they talk in general terms instead of specifics (consider "You're going to be working on special stuff" versus "You're going to implement X, gather data Y, and then do statistical comparison to Z").

Ask questions:

  • Does the supervisor have a PhD? If not, why not?

  • Would your supervisor be capable of getting a PhD if they had to do it on their own?

  • Get a copy of your supervisor's PhD thesis and read it.

  • Read any recent papers. Where were they published? Have you heard of any of these publishers before?

  • What percentage of prior students successfully completed their studies with this supervisor? How many switched to a different supervisor, or dropped out completely?

  • If you have a secondary supervisor, go talk to them. Ask them about the experiences of prior students with the primary supervisor.

  • How many students will your supervisor be supervising in total? How much time do they spend per week on each student?

  • Does the PhD require any special equipment / software / skills? If so, how and when are those going to be available? If you will need specialist training, where and when will you get that?

  • Who will be in your group? Who will you be working with? Will other people be working on the same things as you? Or are you all working on completely different topics?

Red flags:

  • Supervisor has no PhD
  • Papers published only in niche, low volume "workshops" or journals, or own university library, or web page
  • Supervisor can't explain their own papers, talks only in general terms
  • Supervisor doesn't know specifics of what you will be doing
  • Supervisor has 10+ other students to supervise
  • Any negatives from others (though nice people are generally polite, so pay attention and be ready to probe if they do mention something).
  • Supervisor insists on being first author on all papers published by students, even if they made no contribution at all. (It is even possible that the supervisor has made no contribution whatsoever to any of their published papers).
  • Supervisor is known for fund raising - yes it's part of the job, but if the supervisor is working full time on grant applications and bringing in $millions, then the university are unlikely to care about the students. At the end of the day, a university is a business.
  • You will be working alone. Other students are working on completely different topics / fields of research.

I realise that doing all this might sound like a lot of work, but it's worth investing time now to find out as much as you can. An incompetent supervisor can destroy a PhD and waste years of your life.

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The risk of any PhD program cannot be overstated. I incorrectly assumed the 'worst case scenario' of my program was that I would emerge effectively the same, but older. This was not the case. I regret my decisions like nothing I ever thought was possible. I now consider my phd experience to have destroyed my life and robbed me of any contented future.

The central element of your program is your supervisor. All efforts should be expended to ensure the supervisor is someone that up to the task, which is monumental.

I am his one and only phd graduate. I beg you to beware of the risk of your decisions. I cant speak to the upside, because i never found one.

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    please explain the downvote. are you downvoting the answer? or the content? – user140367 Jun 3 at 19:21
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    What is the difference? – user151413 Jun 4 at 18:57
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    It is my understanding stack exchange outlines clear guidelines ('best practices') that act as a template for answering questions. Am I violating those best practices? Or is the downvote the result of a positive bias towards academia within this forum, which I have offended someone's sensibilities regarding phd programs in general? – user140367 Jun 10 at 14:39
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    I think it means people disagree with your answer. Unlike programming or math, this site is not always about objective facts. – user151413 Jun 10 at 21:42
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    ah yes. just eliminate the data points that disagree with our model... why didnt i think of that before... – user140367 Jun 11 at 19:05
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I tried this and it didn't work out, so that's my bias. I ended up finishing my PhD after a difficult process of transitioning to a much more experienced PI. The main problem/risk with working with someone new is that their ability as a supervisor is totally untested. Even if they have some mentorship experience, they have not taken anyone through the process, so steps that someone more experienced knows how to navigate may totally trip them up, resulting in problems for you. They also may not be up to the task, and that will also lead to problems for you, whether in terms of bullying/abuse or simply no/weak publications, too long in the program/losing funding.

I think the benefit of working with someone new is that they may be well-oriented towards the most exciting problems in the field. Their training is new, so they may have the skills to tackle the up and coming research questions. The question is whether they can adequately supervise someone to take those questions on. Even someone who seems genial and kind may show a different face when you work with them. Still, they may turn out to be really good at supervising students and in that case you will really benefit (I have seen other people have this experience).

What I found in my department is that there were a very few people who were excellent supervisors. They could work with all kinds of students and guide them to finishing, regardless of individual strengths. They were professional and focused on the success of the research. I ended up with one of them - while my research was unrelated to his and he had a hands-off style, we had no conflict and I was able to finish a totally new topic two years after starting with him, with two journal articles together, including one in a high-impact journal (and I hope another to come). A lot of the professors were in a middle ground - they worked better with some people than others, had definite prejudices/work styles that would be a much better fit for some people than others. Some were problematic - self-seeking, sabotaging, unprofessional, abusive.

If you decide to go with someone untested, just make sure you find alternate mentors and make sure you have a sense of what success looks like for you, and the milestones you need to hit. That's important in any case, but particularly with someone untested.

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