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I've just finished the fourth year of my engineering PhD in the US and am anticipating graduating next year. In that time, I've essentially been conducting research independently, through no fault of my own. I have an advisor and committee, who all seem to be happy with my work, even though none of them have a good understanding of what I'm actually doing.

My advisor seems to think this is fine. He says he appreciates how independent I am and that he considers me to be more than capable as a researcher and that I don't need any guidance. While being independent has been fine recently, I feel like I have wasted a large amount of time in the first 2-3 years of my PhD pursuing foolish ideas that never materialized into papers. Currently I have two papers published in top journals, in addition to one paper in submission and some other work in the pipeline.

As I'm starting to think about my graduation and next steps in my career, I have a few questions about my current situation.

  1. Who is going to write my recommendation letters? (at least partially answered by this answer)
  2. Is it bad to have never worked in an actual collaborative effort to publish (e.g. a paper with 3-4+ authors)? Is it OK to have most of your papers be sole author? In general, when hiring committees look at a CV, do they take into account how many authors a paper has? I don't want to be seen as less productive because I don't have any collaborators.
  3. I feel like I've been at a disadvantage in my PhD, and that I could have been substantially more productive if I had guidance and a research group to work with. I've been told that this will be taken into account when people are evaluating my CV and research, and that people will see how independent I am and this will be seen as a strength. But is that really true? I could see it going in the opposite way, with people wondering why I couldn't find anyone to work with and thinking there must be something wrong.

I think there are a lot of questions/discussion talking about advisors who don't help with research. The question being asked here is, can an independent phd student be competitive against a phd student with a research group, in relation to how they would be ranked by a hiring committee. Will academics understand that an independent phd student has a harder situation and take this into account when choosing a candidate who will be most productive in the future?

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    Can you update this with your field and country? In a lot of fields working alone with a committee is the norm, so that information will change the answer dramatically. – Jeff Jun 4 at 0:34
  • done - engineering/US – Taw Jun 4 at 0:46
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    This isn't my field so I'm not going to leave an answer, but I think a lot depends on your letter writers. It sounds like you have very supportive mentors who are impressed with your independence as a researcher -- if you get them to write you letters, this can be a very good thing. I'd also recommend looking at fellowships, in addition to normal postdocs -- these are very prestigious but are specifically designed to support postdocs with a strong, independent vision. – Andrew Jun 4 at 2:15
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Is it bad to have never worked in an actual collaborative effort to publish (e.g. a paper with 3-4+ authors)? Is it OK to have most of your papers be sole author?

Yes, it's ok. In fact, when there are fewer authors (or you are the first author), it looks like you have more responsibility for the intellectual contribution.

In general, when hiring committees look at a CV, do they take into account how many authors a paper has? I don't want to be seen as less productive because I don't have any collaborators.

You can always find collaborators at conferences. Another option is to find undergraduates interested in research and work with them. As a professor, you would be expected to guide students in research, and a lack of peer collaborations does not indicate an inability to guide students.

I feel like I've been at a disadvantage in my PhD, and that I could have been substantially more productive if I had guidance and a research group to work with. I've been told that this will be taken into account when people are evaluating my CV and research, and that people will see how independent I am and this will be seen as a strength. But is that really true? I could see it going in the opposite way, with people wondering why I couldn't find anyone to work with and thinking there must be something wrong.

I doubt people will think something is wrong. There's nothing wrong with working independently as long as you are publishing.

The question being asked here is, can an independent phd student be competitive against a phd student with a research group, in relation to how they would be ranked by a hiring committee. Will academics understand that an independent phd student has a harder situation and take this into account when choosing a candidate who will be most productive in the future?

There are two questions here, actually. The first is that whether hiring committees will accept that you had a more independent PhD process than others. To some extent, PhD work is always independent; students are supposed to be the lead author of their dissertation research, and be capable of being an independent researcher once they graduate. You can certainly write about it in your cover letter, or ask your letter writers to write about it, but it's not guaranteed that hiring committees will accept that additional independence.

The second is whether being more independent during the PhD would change their expectations for your research achievements. Hiring committees are usually hiring based on a candidate's potential, but one could argue that a applicant who is more productive due to having collaborations has more potential. In my opinion, I would expect that your research achievements would be judged equally to those of other applicants, regardless of the challenges you faced. (I'm not claiming this is fair, only that this is what I expect hiring committees to do.)

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