I have chosen to work under a associate professor as my PhD advisor. He has a small research group -a group of 3 graduate students and some Undergraduates. I see colleagues of my advisor have groups of 10-12 students with 3 postdocs.

Am I missing something- research wise ??

4 Answers 4


The individuals involved are more important than the size of the group. Different faculty have different management styles.


This will of course vary between advisors and research groups, but I can discuss the differences I’ve seen in general between large and small labs. There are some differences which will be an advantage or disadvantage based on your personal preferences/working style, and others that can have a direct impact on research.

As a PhD student I was a part of a large academic lab, where we had approximately 20 people including Masters, PhDs, and post-docs plus an additional array of more temporary undergrads. As a large group, we had a variety of projects ongoing, with some involving small teams working on the same or similar topic. Being in a small team suited me, personally, quite well. The multiple ongoing research directions allowed me to also expand my knowledge base through informal discussions and during lab meetings, in addition to providing easy opportunities for collaborative research in smaller side projects through my degree. Older/more advanced students and post-docs were also a font of knowledge and advice for my own research problems. As a large group, we had a good amount of resources, monetary and otherwise, which was a definite bonus.

However, as a manager of a large lab, my advisor had little time for much personal attention or anything besides general direction. As such, it was much more difficult finding my research ‘footing’. After the first few difficult years, though, I flourished with the relative research freedom. From discussions with friends in much smaller labs, the involvement of their advisors was much higher and ranged from, in the beginning, weekly specialized task lists, to working side-by-side in the lab.

Once again, this will be heavily dependent on the people involved, but it is difficult to expect the same amount of interaction from an advisor who must split their attention n times more ways. I know a few who had co-advisors (where one was more established, one newer) to balance the issues I discussed (particularly the lack of funding/resources with the latter), but each option has their own advantages and disadvantages. Being co-advised is definitely no exception; getting them to agree to go in the same research direction can be simultaneously frustrating and terrifying.

With a small lab you may indeed be missing something research-wise, but your training in the ability to do research and your knowledge in your particular subject may benefit.


I have chosen to work under a assosciate professor as my PhD advisor. He has a small research group -a group of 3 graduate students and some Undergraduates. I see colleagues of my advisor have groups of 10-12 students with 3 postdocs. Am I missing something- research wise ??

I've worked in a number of different sized research groups, from the very small (PI, me, and another student working on a different project) to a very large group (dozen or so faculty members, legions of graduate students, handful of postdocs).

The answer is no, you're not necessarily "missing something". What you're getting is a different sort of something. A large group can do some things a smaller group can't - things that require just a massive input of raw man-hours. They likely have more publications coming out in aggregate, etc. These are all really cool things.

On the other hand, small groups have less inertia. It's probably easier for a small group to "pivot" to pursue something new and interesting. And it's easier for something to be "yours" - for large groups, with each graduate student making up a component part, it's somewhat harder to boost the visibility of each individual.

There are plusses and minuses to each, but they're very much just different styles of working. Good science can, and has, been done under each model.


It is probably because your supervisor is an associate professor and he has just started expanding his research group. As per my knowledge when professors are in this stage, they engage in more research activities to develop their career. And also they get enough time to spend for their students. I think there is no reason to worry. Probably it is for the best.

  • 1
    Really? I find it hard to imagine any assistant professor thinking "I'll want until after tenure to start expanding my group" instead of expanding their group now to improve their chances for tenure.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 12:07
  • @JeffE may be not true for all the cases. My supervisor was engaged in research when he was an asso.Professor than now. I meant he spent alot of time with students and was more dedicated towards research/publications and getting grants. Now he kinda achieved what he wants (I assume, as he is a full professor, supervises so many PhD, masters, undergrad students). Eventhough still the research is his main thing, he has less time to spend with his students (with other administrative work). That was what I meant. Anyway you are a professor, so you know better than me :) Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 13:28
  • @JeffE It may be a function of time-until-funded-R01, rather than tenure.
    – Fomite
    Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 19:49

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