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In the next few weeks I'll need to pick an advisor for my master's thesis (in a certain subfield of mathematics). I've narrowed down the choice to two (full) professors.

  1. Prof. H I've known Prof H for two years, took two courses with him, and got the top grade in both of them. He is a very good, peaceful, and punctual person; and he is clear and precise in explanations. He has much academic experience (being over 60 years old) and has supervised many students (at undergraduate, masters, and doctoral level). However, I've noticed that his former PhD students (10, currently still assistant professors) are not much productive (and mostly publish with him, working on his research program). I've a marked interest in a certain sub-subfield, but he works in a different (smaller and, in my opinion, less interesting) sub-subfield; he is quite productive and in the last 30 years he has covered an impressive (and well-organized) research program (in which I could easily find a thesis topic) and he has grown to be a household name in his area of specialization; but his research, although very solid and original, has not been exactly groundbreaking and his latest works (which are all of high quality and quite innovative) have not been very impactful (in terms of citations yet).

  2. Prof. K Regardless of the choice of the advisor, I will take one course taught by Prof K. However, I don't known him personally yet and therefore I'm not familiar with his “style” (although I've been told that he is generally a good person). He also has many years of experience (being slightly under 60 years old) but has supervised fewer undergraduate and master's students (some of whom changed areas of research for their higher studies), no PhD students, and several Post-docs. He works exactly in the sub-subfield I'm most interested in and has produced many solid papers over the last 30 years; comparatively, I'd say that his work is less innovative and much less systematic than Prof H's but maybe broader; in fact, while Prof. H has expanded, organized, and generalized in an original way a couple of (small) research areas (also highlighting connections with other areas), Prof. K has mostly applied a vast sophisticate toolbox to solve several interesting problems and created only few novel "tools" slightly adapting the existing ones (although I must note that Prof. K's area is essentially much more “scattered”). Prof. K does not seem to be quite an household name, but has given substantial contributions, is quite active in the community (and his former advisor was the expert of the area).

Working with either of them has some pro's; however, there are some alarming red flags about both of them. I have a hunch that working with Prof. H may be smoother and simpler; however, Prof K research interests are much more appealing to me (and aligned to what I'd like to do during my PhD – for which I'll apply to another institution anyway).

Assuming that both of them would accept me as a student, to which red flags should I pay most attention? What factors (also other than the ones I've talked about) should I take into account the most when making the decision?

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    may be of interest academia.stackexchange.com/questions/4793/why-would-one-choose-a-particular-advisor-other-than-having-shared-interests/
    – gman
    Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 19:27
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    The big red flag for me with Prof K is the lack of successful PhD students. That's a long career as a "almost household name" to not have at least a couple student success stories under your belt. Remember the dissertation is a calling card. If you get the tenure track job, your interests can mutate and there's nothing to stop you from collaborating with Prof K down the line when you can afford to take more chances.
    – user10636
    Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 20:25
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    This question seems very specific to your circumstances, and therefore does not make a good fit for the site which seeks to yield more general resources. Can you distill the essence of the trade-offs? I.e., your trying to decide how much to weigh publications with existing connections or something like that? Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 0:09
  • @JeromyAnglim Thanks for the heads-up; however, I think I already described the two professors schematically enough to make it easy to extrapolate the essence of the trade-offs (and of the red flags): e.g., several not-very-productive PhD students vs no PhD students and some Post-docs; greater celebrity in one narrower and not very interesting area vs solid but not very original work in a cooler area; more systematic and unitary research program (but latest works not much cited) vs broader scope (although scattered), etc. What should I rewrite in a more 'essential' way?
    – user49867
    Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 12:44
  • @riku one suggestion would be to write a title that captures the essential aspects of what you are trading off so that someone could look at the title and go "I know what that question is about". Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 13:11

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Well, first of all, this is a master's thesis. I would argue that it doesn't really matter that much, because you will at most be working with this person for a year or so and then leaving to go somewhere else.

Given what you've written here, I wonder why this is even a question for you. You know Prof H and have taken courses with him and done well. You know that he gives good mentorship and feedback. You know that his former students end up very successful. You know he's productive and well-known, which could be helpful for getting into a PhD program. The only question here is does he have enough subfield knowledge in your area to advise your thesis?

Also, if he has 30 years of research and is a household name, how is his work not impactful in terms of citations? You don't become a household name as a scientist unless you've written some papers with impact.

Prof K might not be a bad choice either. The fact that he has had no doctoral students is irrelevant because you're writing a master's thesis. But why go for an unknown if you already know Prof H and know that he's a great advisor?

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    In the US, this advice might make sense, but the OP has not indicated s/he is in the US. In Japan, students often do their PhD at the same place as their MA.
    – virmaior
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 23:50
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    @roseofjuly I strongly disagree with your statement I would argue that it doesn't really matter that much. For a serious student, any work, especially the research study in his/her favorite subject matter really really much.
    – Sathyam
    Commented Mar 5, 2016 at 0:07
  • @Sathyam In Europe it is common to switch supervisors after the Masters. In fact, the easiest time to reorient one's career is after the Masters. Under this view, "It doesn't really matter that much" is a valid statement. That being said, if you find the right person to work with, that's the most important thing. Keep in mind, you have to get along with your supervisor, so you should talk to them in person, in any case. Commented Mar 5, 2016 at 10:43
  • As I've written, Prof. H's students are not very productive and independent; his work is impactful, but his latest works don't seem to have had the impact (in terms of citations) their novelty should deserve. "The only question here is does he have enough subfield knowledge in your area to advise your thesis?" No, my point is that I will have to work for more than a year in an area which is not my favourite.
    – user49867
    Commented Mar 5, 2016 at 11:55
  • "The fact that he [Prof K] has had no doctoral students is irrelevant because you're writing a master's thesis." Well, here Masters thesis involve quite a large research component; besides, this could mean either that he didn't want PhD students or that no one has ever asked him for some reason (which may be a red flag).
    – user49867
    Commented Mar 5, 2016 at 11:58