If it makes a difference, I am an undergrad.

I am wondering how important prestige in the following situation:

I can choose between two advisors, A and B, to work with. I think that both would be great advisors, but A has more publications and seems to be more well known than B. However, B's work is much more closely related to what I am interested in, though A is somewhat familiar with this area as well. All else equal, I would like to work with B because their research interests match mine more closely. However, I will need a letter of recommendation, so I would like to get the best letter possible and I think that A would be able to provide a better letter because they have more publications and are more well known.

How should I choose between A and B?

  • What kind of project are you going to work with? And are both available and willing to take you on?
    – Davidmh
    Apr 14, 2016 at 18:26
  • I am interested in working through some papers related to material covered in their respective classes and both have responded positively to my emails. Of course, I hope that this will turn into a more full-fledged project, but I haven't asked that far ahead yet.
    – Tachyon
    Apr 14, 2016 at 18:30
  • So, you are an undergrad? The letters are for PhD positions?
    – Davidmh
    Apr 14, 2016 at 18:33
  • Yes to both. I plan to work with them over the summer and ask for a recommendation in the coming fall.
    – Tachyon
    Apr 14, 2016 at 18:34
  • 1
    "I think that A would be able to provide a better letter because they have more publications and are more well known" This sentence sounds strange. What do you mean by "better" here? The professor could be well know but still write a non-supporting letter.
    – Dirk
    Apr 15, 2016 at 7:08

1 Answer 1


I am assuming the two choices are at the same institution. If they are not, choose the higher-ranked institution (if there is a clear winner), because moving forward, name DOES matter). That said: You have two currently incompatible, yet not mutually-exclusive motivations: a) work with someone who is well known in the field b) work with someone who has closely aligned research interests

and, you are concerned about the letter of recommendation, to come later.

the correct choice is B. You should work with the faculty member whose research interests closely match yours. Any other decision is to enter into a failing marriage. It is important that you can be excited about what you are doing, and your excitement will in turn excite your mentor, which will pay dividends.

THAT SAID, names do matter. If the faculty that matches your interests is junior, you will have to plan ahead to ensure that in addition to his/her glowing recommendation, you also get a letter from the more senior colleague. This isn't impossible, or even difficult. If you are starting grad school, just be open and honest about it. Engage him/her. Go to their lab meetings. Later, when you do your prelim or comp exams, you can invite that person to be on your committee. You'll get both of best worlds: an advisor that shares your passion and a letter from a big wig.

You have to love what you're doing.

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