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I want to apply as a PhD candidate and therefore looking up on various potential supervisors who have common research interests. My approach is by first visiting their webpages, looking up on the Research Interests mentioned and then checking their recent publications on a particular topic I am interested in. I find many, but in most of them the potential supervisor is a second or a co-author.

In order to gauge the current active research field and work of the supervisor, must they be the first author or does being a co-author imply the same?

If this matters, my subject is Engineering and Technology.

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  • 5
    My PhD advisor was never the first author on any paper with me.
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 20 at 12:21
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    If they were the first author too often, that would suggest you wouldn't get to be first author if you worked with them. Mar 20 at 14:37
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    An advisor that steps back and allows his students to be first author is giving the limelight to that student and shows that he is more interested in your success than his career. This is an indication, but not a guarantee, of a good advisor.
    – tnknepp
    Mar 20 at 16:03
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    Related: academia.stackexchange.com/a/2474/19607
    – Kimball
    Mar 20 at 19:41
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    What is your field? The order of authors has a different meaning in different fields. For example, in biology, a supervisor is never first author and instead has the very prestigious last position. One is expected to move from being first author (the person who did the work, usually a student or young researcher) to being the last author (the person who supervised the work and lead the team). In math and related fields, the authors are just listed alphabetically. So please tell us your field.
    – terdon
    Mar 21 at 13:38

6 Answers 6

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This is very common. The professor has a research group comprised of students & postdocs (and possibly collaborators from other institutions), who are all working on different problems that the professor finds interesting. When those projects are done, a paper is written with the student/postdoc as the first author and the professor as a co-author. This is normal, since the student/postdoc does most of the work, but the professor is involved anyway as the supervisor.

Since the professor is involved in all these papers, you can gauge their research field by looking at the papers, even though they aren't the first author.

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    It is surely field dependent, but I do think that the custom of advisor/research-group-leader as last author (and also corresponding author) is not uncommon and pretty good system for a number of fields.
    – DotCounter
    Mar 21 at 17:29
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Well my supervisor is also mostly second author in her publications, since, she works in a team where her principal investigator is the first and main author. This does not mean my supervisors contribution is any less.

So, there are few things check, you could check.

  1. In the publications, where your potential supervisor is second author, is the first author always same?

  2. Check if he/she is involved in a big project and who is leading that project.

  3. How can you correlate the possibility of the order in the author list and the research contribution?

  4. Try to gauge the research out of the publications, for instance, international collaborations, workshops, talks etc

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I would say that if they mention it in their research interests (which you've already checked) AND they consistently publish papers in the field (even if not as primary author) then that is a research interest.

It also means that, if you apply and get in and work with the professor on papers, you may get to be first author, which is nice for many things. You certainly want a mentor who is interested in what you are interested in, but you also want one who is nice, and this is one indication of that.

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There may be a few reasons why advisors are second authors. 1) Faculty has their own research group and they are supervising students from their research group. In this case, supervised students are primary author and faculty are second author. 2) Faculty is collaborating with other people who are more actively working on paper rather than the faculty and my first point applies here too. 3) It depends upon norms in the field—some field list advisor as last author and other as second author. So it’s not easy to generalize.

Coming to your most recent works question—since faculty are already publishing, their research might be ongoing and they may already have team set up to work on the project and highly unlikely to hire new students because students are bounded by two obligations of research and education. So, it’s highly unlikely student would drop or leave research team before finishing research.

Best way to approach faculty is to email them with CV attached if your broader field/interest matches with the interest of faculty. If faculty is willing to hire students, they will respond. Sometime faculty are willing to apply grants if your idea is good enough. So, best way is to email them. Also, visit society website if there is any—some jobs are posted there.

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In some fields (like my bit of Physics, overlapping with engineering) , the supervisor is usually the last author. That's last in order but not necessarily least in contribution, and a marker of their role.

So my PhD first author papers have me, other authors, my supervisor, where other authors includes the relevant postdocs, other PhDs students who contributed, and external collaborators. Similarly I've been in that "other" category as a result of other contributions, both during my PhD and as a postdoc.

This, along with similar authorship patterns, is a sign of a group with a healthy culture of working together (not a guarantee, just a sign). It indicates that credit is being distributed, hopefully to those who most deserve it.

One thing to watch out for is supervisors who have done enough work - normally experimental design + writing) to be first author, but allow that position to go to the student, who needs it more. That's only mildly generous, because supervising successful students is important to a PI's standing and it's a way of getting the publication that the PI needs, but it's not necessarily good for their students' training.

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  • Really? I thought Physics and Engineering took the Math approach and listed authors alphabetically. Is this ordering specific to your particular sub field or general to Physics and/or Engineering?
    – terdon
    Mar 21 at 13:40
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    @terdon I can't speak for everyone else, but in the semiconductors/spectroscopy areas I'm used to, author order isn't alphabetic. When I've contributed in adjacent fields, it's been the same as I'm used to as well. AIP and IOP guidance implies the authors have to sort out a sequence, IEEE "leaves the order of authors to the discretion of the authors"
    – Chris H
    Mar 21 at 14:17
  • @terdon In physics there are sub-field-dependent practices, see this.
    – Anyon
    Mar 22 at 12:57
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Here is the short answer to your question:

In almost every field where author order matters (i.e., is non-alphabetical), the first author is typically a junior researcher and the last author a senior researcher. The first author is the one who "did most of the work", while the last author is the one who came up with the ideas and directed the project.

Therefore, when scouting potential advisors, you should look for their last author publications, not their first author publications.

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