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I am in my first year of my master's program in computer science. I have been sitting in on one professors lab meetings whose research I am really interested in when I asked him if he was comfortable working with me on a master's thesis he gave a response which I am having trouble interpreting. He said that he felt comfortable in the sense that he felt I would do great, but he didn't feel comfortable being the sole adviser due to the number of current master's students he was already advising. He said he would be my thesis adviser if I could find a co-adviser. He is a new professor at my university and does not yet have tenure as this is his first year.

My question is was this a gentle way of letting me down or is it common for busy professors to suggest co-advising?

  • I would guess that if he wanted to turn you down he would have. He probably wants to share the load of supervision? – chris Nov 22 '14 at 9:32
  • Has he suggest you any professor to talk with? – Enthusiastic Engineer Nov 22 '14 at 9:33
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    Really, it could be either of your two possibilities. I would suggest talking to him further to try to figure out which of these is the case. – Peter Shor Nov 22 '14 at 11:04
  • He mentioned that it didn't matter if the potential co-adviser was in the field I intend to work in, but he seemed to think when I suggested that I try and see if I could get the professor whose lab he is collaborating with to co advise he seemed to think that was a good idea. Also, he said he had felt the same way when a fellow student asked him the same question earlier he beat me to it by a few days, but eventually agreed to be his thesis adviser. The professor still mentioned he felt even before then that he had too many masters students since he was expecting phd students next year. – efuller100 Nov 22 '14 at 16:16
  • From how you've described it, I would assume good intent. – Compass Nov 24 '14 at 20:15
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As Peter Shor indicates, one cannot uniquely decode the professor's intent from this response. You'll have to get more information from him to be confident of his motivations.

Let me say that taking on a coadvisor could show a lack of confidence in the student, but more commonly it shows an advisor's lack of confidence in her own experience or is done for a good, subject-oriented reason (i.e., to bring in specific expertise). My first PhD student -- taken on when I was not yet tenured -- was coadvised with a more senior faculty member. This was because I was nervous about myself, not about him (he was really great), but independently of my own gingerness it turned out to be a very good idea because his second adviser imparted some key technical knowledge that got used in his thesis in a very nice way. Now (I am tenured and) I have four students who are solely advised by me: I got a little older is the main difference. So I can understand this faculty member's perspective.

On the other hand, at least in my field (mathematics) advising a master's student is much easier than advising a PhD student: they stay for 1/3 to 1/2 of the time and the whole experience is not as intense. Because of this, "splitting" a master's student is less common (and no examples spring to mind, but then again in mathematics, a master's degree is more likely to be done rather casually en route to greater things or as a terminal degree).

From a neutral (read: uninformed) outsider's perspective, I would say that if you're already sitting in this guy's research group then that's pretty close to taking you on as a master's student. One thing you could try is just to organically increase your interactions without "putting a label on it". In other words, instead of sitting in on the group, can you actually do some work for the group? If so, you basically are this guy's master's student, and after a couple of months of work it will be much easier for all involved to call it that. If on the other hand you express an interest in doing work for his group and he tells you why you can't at the moment....then there's your answer.

Another tack to take would be to ask the professor for a specific suggestion of who could co-advise you. Then you can take it up with that person...who of course may suggest single-handedly advising you. I think the suggestion to co-advise without a specific person in mind to do the other half of the advising shows that he is not very enthusiastic about advising you.

Good luck.

  • According to a comment from the OP, the prospective adviser didn't even care about what field the co-adviser is in. That looks very strange to me. I'd think that all you could expect from such a co-adviser is help with the bureaucratic aspects that you mentioned, but even filing a progress report would seem to require some familiarity with the student's specialty. – Andreas Blass May 9 '15 at 14:47
  • @Andreas: One might hope that "different field" means something like "mathematical logic" versus "arithmetic geometry" rather than "mathematics" versus "engineering", but I agree it's a strange comment in any event. – Pete L. Clark May 9 '15 at 16:46
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We've used co-advisors in our department for several reasons:

  • When the student's work crosses into two specialties -- for example, if someone wanted to study Islam in Russia -- we might have Prof. A who is a Russia specialist with no particular knowledge of religion work with Prof. B who does Islam, but predominantly in the middle-east.
  • When Prof. A has too many advisees and needs someone to share the administrative burden. I don't think grad students realize how much of an administrative burden they can be. We have to file progress reports, grant proposals, sign off on expenditures -- not to mention letters of recommendation.
  • When there is some doubt of Prof. A's long term plans. Whether they have eyes on becoming provost -- or maybe a transfer to another university -- sometimes either Prof. A or the department itself will proactively make sure that Prof. A's students aren't orphaned.
  • Related to this, if Prof. A expects a sabbatical or other leave, they may proactively try to make sure that the students in the first several years of their grad work are properly mentored in their absence.

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