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I have been admitted to a generally well-regarded Computer Science PhD program.

My potential advisor's research interests match very well with mine. However, he appears to be an extremely controversial figure within the community - someone whose research always evokes strong reactions.

Some people consider him to be an innovative out-of-the-box thinker whose research is always fresh and interesting. Others, perhaps the majority, consider much of his work to be ridiculous, outrageous, and gimmicky. In either case (for both the right and wrong reasons), he appears to enjoy plenty of publicity. He is also a full professor and the chair of his department (which is a well-regarded department).

I really want to accept the offer, but these issues are making me uneasy. Should I be worried at all? What do you think? For obvious reasons, I don't want to name my potential advisor here. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

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    In the end it may come down to whether or not you can get on with your supervisor on a personal level. His 'eccentricity' may work for you or against you. – Dave Clarke Jun 2 '12 at 11:08
  • @DaveClarke: Thanks. I agree - the personal factor is always important. But leaving that aside for the moment (there's no way I can meet him before I enrol), are there serious cons to having an advisor who has a dubious reputation within the community? – Velvet Ghost Jun 2 '12 at 11:27
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    The fact that you choose him as an advisor implies that you agree with his philosophy. Thus, it is possible that his enemies will become your enemies. – Joel Reyes Noche Jun 2 '12 at 23:35
  • Not necessarily. We have very similar interests, but not necessarily similar views. Also, as a tenured professor he can perhaps afford to make enemies. But as a student who must later look for a job, I can't! – Velvet Ghost Jun 3 '12 at 1:57
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The best single predictor of your future is how your advisor's students have done in the past. Of course, this is not entirely reliable, because you could turn out to be your advisor's most or least successful student, the job market changes over time, etc. However, there's a good chance that you'll fall somewhere in the range of past students.

If the past students have been well accepted by the community and ended up with jobs you would like, then that's a good sign. If not, then you should certainly be worried.

If you do work with this advisor, I'd recommend keeping this issue in mind and trying not to become too narrow. Talk frequently with other faculty, do an internship at an industrial lab, try to collaborate with someone other than your advisor, etc. This is a good approach anyway, even if your advisor isn't controversial, but it's especially important if you are trying to establish greater mainstream credibility than your advisor. (You may have trouble pulling off the "out of the box thinker" approach to getting a job: even if you are as creative as your advisor, being his student can still make your creativity look derivative of his, so it's important to have another angle.)

  • Thanks. Unfortunately, I don't have information on where most of his ex-students work. I do have such information for around 20% of his ex-students, and they work at IBM, Microsoft, NASA, Sandia Labs, Lockheed-Martin. However it could be that this is the 'best' 20% (that's why info is provided on them) and that the majority are not doing nearly as well. – Velvet Ghost Jun 2 '12 at 12:22
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    @VelvetGhost: You can do more searching using Web of Science and Google—look at students who he's written papers with, and then figure out where they are now (if you can find that out). – aeismail Jun 2 '12 at 20:17

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