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I am an EE undergraduate senior who is about to become a graduate student next semester.

I applied for integrated MS/PhD and there are two PIs I can choose. However, the problem is that I do not know choosing which PI will benefit myself in long term perspective.

Their research fields are 90% the same. Furthermore, they are currently assistant professors who came to this school this year which means that they have no alumni yet. The only apparent difference is the h-index based on Google Scholar where that of one PI is almost twice that of the other.

Is this case, is it obvious to choose the one with the higher h-index? First, I thought choosing the PI with the higher h-index would be a wise choice because they are almost the same age, studying the same research field with same alumni status which is 0 since they are both new. If all conditions are the same, considering the h-index difference would be a relevant comparison.

However, thinking another way, the department committee are not idiots; they would have hired the PI with the lower h-index for some reason that cannot be explained by the lower h-index. So, maybe, choosing the one with the lower h-index will be a harmless choice or even might be a good choice for me.

I heard hundreds of pieces of advice that comparing PIs in terms of h-index is not relevant due to different research fields, ages, alumni status, etc. However, in my case, the fact that they are so alike in everything except the h-index makes me confused. What will be a good choice for me? Or at least, even if you don't have a definite answer, please give me advice.

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    Neither, yet. First you need to meet them and have actual face-to-face (or at least skype-to-skype) discussions about their interests, their working style, and their expectations for students. – JeffE Dec 13 '16 at 3:46
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    I've voted to close, because this a shopping question. I'll comment that the h-index is a particularly bad measure of research quality/productivity and future prospects of an assistant professor. – Brian Borchers Dec 13 '16 at 4:03
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    See the Advisor section of I've been admitted to multiple PhD programs, how should I choose between them? – ff524 Dec 13 '16 at 4:10
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    "If all conditions are the same, considering the h-index difference would be a relevant comparison." I don't see the logic in that. You might as well say "If they are the same in every other way, considering their difference in height would be a relevant comparison", and conclude that you should choose the taller one. – Nate Eldredge Dec 13 '16 at 4:48
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    H-index really does even vary hugely within subfields, and even between approaches to publication -- do you publish a lot of short papers or a few (hopefully) groundbreaking ones? – Chris H Dec 13 '16 at 9:17
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The only apparent difference between the two being h-index means you don't know enough about these two PIs. Work habits, advising styles, perspectives on the roles of their students...all of these matter.

With that out of the way, lets pretend they are, actually, identical.

The h-index is still a bad choice. There are a few reasons why:

  1. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
  2. The h-index is something that can be, and is, gamed. But just being "good" at said game does not actually ensure that you are good as an academic, or as an advisor.
  3. The h-index has no context. Are the highly cited articles commentaries with no students on them? If so, they will be of no value to you.

You need to do more investigation. At the very least you need to engage with their body of work in a way much deeper than a single citation metric.

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    "Are the highly cited articles commentaries with no students on them?" - or, on the other hand, are the highly cited articles mainly written by students and the professor with the higher h-index has their team always put their name into the authors list, whereas the other professor doesn't? – O. R. Mapper Dec 13 '16 at 8:26
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    I cannot upvote this enough – posdef Dec 21 '16 at 13:52
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Research can be extremely mercurial and exhausting. It can also be really fun and exciting. Either way, you want to have a mentor that is in your corner so to speak. I would say that is more important for your advisor to be an agreeable person rather than somebody who has a high h-index. As an incoming graduate student, you may think that you can just work on what you have a passion for and your success will follow regardless of how you get along with your advisor. But you will be working with them for several years. If you have a terrible advisor than you cannot get along with, neither your enthusiasm nor their h-index will mitigate anything. Nothing is worse than being stuck in a PhD program because you are at odds with your advisor. I have seen it happen before my own eyes.

Choose the advisor you like the best. It may be personal taste, but I think the best graduate students flourish under the advisors that uphold mutual respect and curiosity for science.

I'll echo what others said as well: h-index is circumstantial to some degree. Younger faculty probably still have some high impact stuff to publish eventually (which you may help with!), so h-index can change.

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From your question, it looks like their research areas and metrics like h-index are similar so you've judged them to be the same. This just isn't true. I'm a current PhD student and I can tell you, all that's going to matter is how well you work with them.

Go meet the two of them. Find some time to have half an hour to an hour's chat with each of them about their work and what they'd like their next student to work on. If you can, ask their current students what their work schedule is like and what their relationship with their supervisor is like.

You want someone you can work with. Someone who leaves you to it if that's how you work or is more hands on if you want that. You also don't want someone who expects a student working 9-5 monday to friday if you're somebody would like to turn up late and work all evening.

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A lot of the important qualities or characteristics in science do not quantify well, no matter how hard people try.

For example it's nigh impossible to quantify how well a person teaches what s/he knows to others. Pedagogics isn't something that is easy to boil down into numbers...

Another good example is human chemistry and social intelligence. A person might be a successful academic, but that certainly does not imply that it's easy or nice to work with him/her. For example the person might not understand or sympathize with the difficulties (physical, emotional or psychological) others might be experiencing.

Bottomline here is that you should prioritize the person you can work the best with and thus get the most out of, scientifically and socially. Because that person would presumably be one of the most significant persons shaping your life in the next couple of years if you choose to pursue graduate studies. A mismatch in expectations or personalities might be quite detrimental to how things turn out for you.

Lastly, "twice the h-index" might be misleading. Having two comparable people with one having an h-index of 3 and the other 6; I'd say "meh"... That does not really say much. But two comparable people at similar age, with similar backgrounds one with h-index 20 and the other at 40?? That's a different story...

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