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How harmful is it for a PhD student to work with a supervisor whose ambition is greater or lesser than that of the student?

I can imagine that if the supervisor aims much higher than the PhD student the experience could be nightmarish for the student (and frustrating for the supervisor). Similarly if the supervisor aims too low (something like: "Just generalize this theory in way X, that should be enough for a PhD") the work could feel meaningless and the time spent on it wasted, when more challenging and maybe even more important questions could deserve the attention and resources.

Background: I am interested in a career in research. I am worried that if I aim too low in my PhD project it will hurt my career afterwards. PhD takes years and so one would ideally make most of the years spent doing it. Some supervisors are more ambitious and knowledgeable than others. I would imagine that a PhD with a more ambitious researcher (with talent and education to match) would improve one's chances of a career in academia than with a less ambitious one. I have read that the best thesis is a finished one, but surely one should think about how the PhD helps to further a post-PhD research career.

Could the difference be great enough to justify changing programs? Even if the funding is good?

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    This seems terribly broad. Can we get to the underlying motivation for this question. What difference would the answer make to you? If we know that, it might help us make the question a bit more focused and answerable. – EnergyNumbers Feb 1 '15 at 12:36
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    I've known a number of moderately ambitious Ph.D. students who studied with extremely ambitious advisors, and for the most part things worked out very well. – Anonymous Feb 1 '15 at 13:29
  • Searching for the Goldilocks professor (neither too high nor too low, too tall not too short, etc) is likely a futile effort. – RoboKaren Feb 3 '15 at 13:41
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It does not make much sense to me to compare the supervisor's ambition for herself to the student's ambition for himself: the supervisor is probably older (more often than not, significantly older) and certainly more experienced and accomplished than the student. If a student feels competitive with his thesis advisor in any direct way, something has probably gone wrong. Students should take on advisors that they view as distinctly wiser and more knowledgeable in the main topic they're trying to learn! (The notion of a student who is comparably knowledgeable and skilled as his advisor is something which appears in the premise of a question on this site at least once a month. Strangely, I have never seen it in real life.) "Ambition" isn't exactly the right metric, because it aims at the future, and some very successful, eminent researchers are not pushing hard for the future: they've done plenty already. Such "big old dogs" can make great thesis advisors.

On the other hand, some advisors are much more ambitious than others in their expectation for their students. This is an important thing to take into account when choosing an advisor, and too great a mismatch in either direction is going to be a problem. For instance, it is likely that at some point in the relationship the advisor will say "I want you to do X, and when you do it you'll have a PhD." If the student thinks that there is no way in hell that he is going to get anywhere near X it is worth a conversation ASAP, and if X really needs to be attained to get a PhD (probably not, by the way, but just for argument's sake) then the student should look elsewhere. On the other hand, if the student can (or does) do X in a month or two and the advisor says "Great -- now you have a PhD!" then the student may want to start over with someone who is more ambitious on his behalf.

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Ambition is only one dimension of the complex relationship defining whether a student and advisor are well-matched. You can have a complete mis-match in that dimension that still turns out to be a good working relationship. For example:

  • A highly ambitious student with a low-ambition but supportive advisor can have a chance to shine early, and to learn how to develop their own independent research identity even while still in graduate school.
  • A low-ambition student with a highly ambitious advisor can be a "valued employee" who faithfully executes on the advisor's ideas.

Note, however, that you can't necessarily judge the ambition of a supervisor from the scope of a project that they plan with you: project scope depends on both their ambition and their judgement of what you are capable of. No matter how ambitious, a wise supervisor would not plan to put you on a more ambitious project than they think you can accomplish. And if you turn out to get better results faster than expected, adjusting goals and scope is easy.

A final note: research is hard and unpredictable. No matter how ambitious your goals, you will almost certainly be side-tracked in one way or another, just by the nature of basic research.

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I will introduce another dimension to your dilemma. Have you ever thought about the relative weights of:

  • a lukewarm recommendation letter from a big name advisor, vs.

  • an enthusiastic recommendation letter from a medium name advisor?

The former can kill a career.

Also think about these questions, with regard to both current advisor and potential new advisor:

  • how much heart does the advisor have?

  • to what degree do you feel fascinated by the advisor?

  • to what degree do you feel respected and valued by the advisor?

  • to what degree do you feel that you and the advisor are on the same natural wavelength?

  • does the advisor have good judgment, so that s/he can prevent you from investing a lot of time on tangents or dead-ends?

  • does the advisor have a good nose for what will make a splash, and for realizing when there is a risk that someone else will publish on your topic before you do?

Take a good look at the potential advisors' publication lists. Also, have some frank conversations with them about yourself, what you are interested in, to find out if the person will be truly supportive of you.

I would not change programs if you are more than a year and a half into your research, unless something is really wrong with your current set-up. If an advisor has invested time and energy in you, it would not be ethical to jump ship just because the grass looks greener elsewhere.

The dean of the graduate program in your department is probably someone you could talk to about your dilemma.

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