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I am currently deciding graduate school between several different groups in my school's engineering department. A few faculty in electronics, signal processing and control system has expressed interest in working with me.

When I talk to some of the current graduate students, I get a wide variety of opinions. What bothers me is that some graduate students tells me that a certain group is on "decline". They rarely clarify what this means, but to me it can mean several things.

  1. the output from the group is inconsistent
  2. funding is lacking
  3. output is not applicable to come up with a product
  4. (follows from 3) work too theoretical and deviates from engineering goal

If a group is on decline, then regardless of the reason, under normal circumstances I will not even consider joining. What surprises me is that this group which has been rumored to be on the decline is very keen on recruiting new graduates. In particular, I have experienced more of a "pull" from that particular group than any other group which has expressed interest. There are early admissions, talk about funding, offer of teaching assistance-ship. I am starting to wonder if they need me so to acquire more funding for their own research or if there are some other ulterior motives.

Can someone who works within academia clarify on what it could mean for a group to be on decline, so much that it is apparent to people who are outside of that group.

Also what interest me personally is what ulterior motive could a graduate unit have in recruiting new graduates aside from the expressed interest in publishing more beautiful papers.

Thanks

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    "some graduate students tells me that a certain group is on "decline". They rarely clarify what this means" - why don't you ask them to clarify what they mean by this? – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Feb 4 '15 at 19:32
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    I should say that graduate students are not necessarily the best judge of the state of a research group. I am not saying that they don't know what's going on in their own group, but they often know all the gory internals of their own group and only the bright facade of the other groups in their field. This sometimes brings out a group variant of the Imposter Syndrome, imho. – xLeitix Feb 4 '15 at 19:41
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    They don't need you. – gnometorule Feb 4 '15 at 19:57
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    A group in decline will want to attract grad students to avoid the decline. A group not in decline will want to attract grad students to avoid the decline. Wanting to attract grad students is not a good measure of decline. – Dave Clarke Feb 4 '15 at 21:03
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    I strongly agree with Dave Clark, and I really don't think there are any likely "sinister" ulterior motives. It is worthwhile to look for signs of decline, but I don't think there's any need to try to scrutinize the faculty's motivation. – Anonymous Feb 4 '15 at 21:07
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In the final year of my PhD, I made a tour of several places in the USA to try to establish contacts in the hope of finding hidden postdoc opportunities. I knew of those places because I frequently saw their papers. In some places, I have seen signs of decline:

  • In one place, the main senior scientist had moved away some years ago. Since then, one by one, others had left. It appears nobody was replacing them. The people who were still there appeared to be the ones who were less successful at getting grants and writing papers, than the ones who had left.
  • In another place, I didn't see any PhD students in a group, and only a handful of postdocs. Most people were above 50, with the head of the group being well above 70. Although certainly a great name to have as a support, I wouldn't recommend anyone starting a PhD project with someone who will turn 80 before the candidate is expected to get their PhD.
  • I also overheard conversations from which it was clear that people were not very ambitious. I almost literally heard someone say, that they now had a permanent position so they didn't need to write a lot of papers anymore.

Those are some signs that a place might be in decline: Have more than two senior scientists left the place in the past five years? Is the median age above 60? Are some people happier to stay on their desk than to attract great PhD students and postdocs to produce some great science?

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+100

The other way to look at "decline" is the number of students who actually make it through to get a degree. Some won't finish because they can't, but others may leave early (for other schools or advisors) because of the atmosphere/work environment/etc. within the lab. A well funded lab with a miserable work environment that is driving away students could also be said to be "in decline."

If there is a wide gap in the time students have been in the lab, this could be a sign of such a problem. For instance, maybe there are 5-6 students all about to graduate and 10 students who are in their first or second year. If there's nobody between, you have to ask yourself (or the senior students) where they all went and why.

Retention problems, independent of funding or publication output, could be a warning sign.

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    Also try to find out why people are leaving. I know of groups where people are leaving without PhD (even to umemployment) because of trouble in the group, whereas I've also been in a group where people left without PhD to take industry jobs. – cbeleites supports Monica Feb 7 '15 at 13:08
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In my American computer science program, a PhD student is not tied to an advisor, or narrow field of study in his first year. Usually you will be assigned a prof and a GRA/GTA position for your first year. Use your first year to determine which faculty members you work well with, and then get them to advise and fund your PhD.

I would not be concerned about a lab "in decline" as if a lab is truly having difficulty bringing in money, they will not have any GRAs to offer. You should focus on finding a professor and group you work well with. You'll be judged by the quality of your research, not perceived prestige of the group by other students.

Make a short list of advisors you would like, then begin researching if they can handle another student, or if they have funding issues that might derail your progress later. Focus on choosing a good advisor, not a good group.

EDIT to address comments

@OP - Can you find out if you are tied to one advisor for your entire degree? All the comments are arguing that point.

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    The first paragraph is very country specific. In many European countries I've been to, PhD students are tied to a specific advisor and hence field of study. – Dave Clarke Feb 4 '15 at 21:02
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    In my experience (in computer science, in the US), incoming PhD students are not tied to a particular advisor on admission. – JeffE Feb 4 '15 at 22:40
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    At my (American) university, computer science PhD students were generally assigned an advisor who aligned with their statement of purpose. It was very common for students to switch advisors after the first year to better align with their interest and personality. – sevensevens Feb 4 '15 at 23:45
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    This is field-dependent, and the OP explicitly states engineering, in which often one is admitted to a group rather than to a department. Your first paragraph is probably not an available option. – user4512 Feb 5 '15 at 1:22
  • I knew several computer engineers that switched advisor as well. This may be school and country specific – sevensevens Feb 6 '15 at 18:37

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