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I have recently been admitted to a few PhD programs, and have to decide where to attend. One of them has a massively famous professor (over 50k citations, 'Reuters Highly Cited Researcher'). Other potential supervisors at other institutions are still quite famous (~15k citations). Could anyone share some potential differences in my experiences if I work with someone who is that famous, or not? The group sizes/number of current students are all comparable.

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    It's a better idea to prioritize other aspects. For instance, how well do you get along with the person? How is he/she as an advisor, despite his/her status or citation counts? – mrm Mar 20 '16 at 17:59
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    @mm, I have indeed thought about different aspects including the ones you mentioned, but I have no insight about how the professor's fame would affect my experience, and while not the most major issue for sure, it is something I would like to know more about. – user51024 Mar 20 '16 at 18:04
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    Fame is irrelevant. Are you interested in the topic that the prof offers? Would he be able to help you develop? Do you get along with them? Only then, as low-priority target, you ask, do they have a good standing in the community which may help creating contacts in the future? And note, they may be famous because they are great self-promoters, not necessarily promoters of their grad students. Counting citations does not tell you anything about this. You are worried about the wrong things. – Captain Emacs Mar 20 '16 at 22:17
  • I always prioritize only one aspect: the subject. Is it interesting to you? Is it exciting to you? If it is, chances are you will succeed. If it's not, even a star professor would not help. – Dilworth Mar 22 '16 at 13:23
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I knew somebody who started a PhD with a super-rockstar in Computer Science. He told me he met with his advisor thrice in a year or so, once (a short meeting) when defining the thesis topic, once crossed him in a hallway, and came across him at a conference. It turns out the rockstar was on the road almost 24/7. He changed to a not-so-famous advisor, and was much happier.

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    This has been a similar experience in my own doctoral career. – Shion Mar 21 '16 at 6:49
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    On the other hand, there are some very famous professors who don't travel much at all. – Kimball Mar 21 '16 at 13:20
  • MY GF is having a similar experience. She gets a lot more detailed help from the non-rockstars on her committee. – Andrew Whatever Mar 23 '16 at 16:56
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Agreed with vonbrand's answer, but I would like to add one thing. If the rockstar professor is nearing retirement, he could actually have a great deal of free time to supervise you.

I took a topics course with a "massively famous professor"; there were only two of us in his course. After classes every week, he invited us into his office for casual conversations about his life in grad school and in academia - and what were the biggest surprises in mathematics during his younger days. We learned that he hadn't taken on a student in many years. My classmate convinced him to advise him on his thesis. The problem given to my classmate is an especially tough one, it seems, but he is thrilled to be working with this famous, yet gracious, professor.

OTOH, if the professor that you are thinking of is still highly active in research, he will likely be on the road often -- he may not even attend many of the classes that he is assigned to teach for the semester. I've also experienced this, too.

Good luck with your decision.

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    he could actually have a great deal of free time to supervise you — or not. If this is the situation, @user51024 should really talk to recent or current PhD students to find out how the supervision is in practice. – gerrit Mar 21 '16 at 11:30
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I recommend you perform the following experiment. Choose several established people in your field whom you admire. Look up who their advisors were. See whether or not they were, themselves, ``famous''. Draw your own conclusions.

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As indicated in a couple comments, using citation counts (solely) to judge what kind of advisor someone is a bad idea. First, citation count isn't an accurate representation of how good a research is for many reasons, one of which is citation counts vary greatly within subfields. Another is that they change over time and comparing citation counts of younger versus older researchers is unfair. What would be better is to visit the groups and get a feel for them if possible, and find out where the advisor's former students ended up.

However, here are some possible things to consider with rock star versus cover band advisors:

  • A famous advisor is likely to have a stronger group, particularly if they are at a more prestigious institution. This can benefit you in many ways (learn more, explore better ideas, stronger collaborators). Cf: University rank/stature - How much does it affect one's career post-Ph.D?

  • An eminent researcher may have a more refined/greater perspective on the field, which you can absorb by osmosis.

  • An eminent researcher may have better connections, providing more opportunities and "advertisement" for you. This includes benefiting from the chance to meet many established researchers coming to see your advisor.

  • An eminent advisor may give you better problems/give you better tools to solve problems.

  • A rock star advisor may not have much time for you, and may not even remember your name. Therefore, you may be expected to be more independent (but this expectation is not limited to rock stars).

  • You forgot another problem with citation counts: they include self-citations. This is then easily manipulated. – Dilworth Mar 22 '16 at 13:25

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