For any professors out there, do you feel that there are any differences in how you selected and recruited students from the time when you were newly hired, to a well-established stage (i.e. after getting tenure)? I'm asking this out of curiosity. There are oftentimes questions about whether students should choose a new/old advisor, but I haven't seen any that asked about this from the prof's perspective.

I would assume there are since the challenges and priorities for the two groups are normally somewhat different, but I'm not sure exactly how it would differ. For instance, it might be more difficult for the new PI to recruit students (especially good ones) when they have to "compete" with older, better funded peers. This would lead one to think that new PIs might be more likely to take on students they might not necessarily love, but just need bodies in the lab. However, on the other hand, new PIs are more likely to have limited funding, and if they are on the tenure-track, would need their few students to succeed in order to establish a name for themselves in the industry. In this case, it would be detrimental if they chose the wrong student(s) in the beginning, especially if they are limited to the number of students they can afford due to funding issues. I realize that this is field and situation specific, but I'm looking to hear stories/insights from people who have gone through/know about the process.


3 Answers 3


This will indeed be highly dependent on field. For instance, in pure mathematics, there's a rather dramatic difference: most faculty don't take on any graduate students at all until after tenure.

The American Mathematical Society has written one of their culture statements about this issue. Generally, (pure) mathematicians have no labs and hence no need for bodies to fill them. And in math, on the time scale of a tenure clock, advising grad students is felt to have a net negative effect on research productivity (in the longer run there can be dividends). So the clear incentive is to wait until after tenure, and departments are usually fine with this.

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    Although this is generally true in pure mathematics, faculty in more applied areas of mathematics are often expected to be advising graduate students (and having external grants to pay research assistants) before they are tenured. This is much more akin to the situation in the sciences and engineering. May 24, 2015 at 13:07
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    "most faculty don't take on any graduate students at all until after tenure." I don't believe this is correct. At any rate I personally know several pure mathematicians who took on Ph.D. students while not yet tenured (and I also did so myself) and I haven't heard it suggested until now that this is rare.
    – Anonymous
    May 24, 2015 at 13:41
  • @Anonymous: It certainly isn't unheard of (I also know people who have done it) but the statistics in the AMS statement suggest it is the exception rather than the rule. May 24, 2015 at 13:51
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    @Anonymous: At minimum, we can agree that there are many mathematicians who get tenure without having advised any grad students; in some other fields, as mentioned in other answers, this would be next to impossible. May 24, 2015 at 14:00
  • @NateEldredge: Certainly I agree with you on your last point.
    – Anonymous
    May 25, 2015 at 4:18

By contrast to Nate Eldredge's answer about mathematics faculty, for faculty in engineering/science fields at some institutions, graduating Ph.D. students is actually one of the key requirements for obtaining tenure. The theory is that successfully supervising Ph.D. students is one of the primary tasks of research-oriented faculty. As a result, selecting a graduate student is likely to be much higher stakes for such faculty, and they may be either more conservative (i.e., "Can't risk a bad one") or more risky (i.e., "Gotta make sure at least some graduate!") depending on their personality and funding.


In deciding whether or not to take on a graduate student advisee, the main factors are

  1. Funding. The student will either need their own or departmental funding (by e.g. a fellowship or teaching assistantship) or the advisor will have to provide it. Conversely, if the advisor has a funded research assistantship position it is often necessary to find someone to fill the position.

  2. Fit. Broadly, the student and advisor have to agree on the topic of the student's thesis and if the student will be working on a research assistantship then that topic has to fit with the grant. The project might also require special skills (e.g. knowledge of a particular programming language.)

  3. Aptitude or ability. Some students are more capable than others.

For the first two points I don't think there is much difference depending on whether the advisor is tenured or not. With respect to the third point, advisors who are tenured can afford to be more careful in selecting only students that they think will do well.

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    How important would you say "aptitude or ability" or even likability is for faculty in the selection process generally (I know this is a broad question), when compared with research fit? In general, you hear a lot about how first impressions are for interviews, sometimes more important than even skills required. Do you think this is also true for PIs in science, or would they be more likely to quantitate student abilities, and be less affected by emotion?
    – Cornyvita
    May 24, 2015 at 14:58
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    Also, do you think that if new faculty sometimes can't afford to be too selective in the aptitude field, that when they do find a capable student, they would be more willing to actively "attract" that student into the lab? I'm in the process of finding a phD supervisor, and have found that one newer faculty is not shy in trying to "woo" me into the lab, even though we've just met once. I'm not sure whether this speaks more for me as a student, or for their lack of students...
    – Cornyvita
    May 24, 2015 at 15:01
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    Personally, I won't take on a student until they've taken at least one course with me and done well. I don't trust my first impression, and I don't care much about personal traits ( one of our new graduate students once asked to go on a run with me and found that he couldn't keep up with me. I took him on as an advise anyway...). The most important factors to me are fit and ability. May 24, 2015 at 16:57

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