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I am a first-year PhD student interested in working with a professor at my university. I have had two nice meetings with him and liked the project ideas we discussed.

But a student told me that he thought the professor's work was derivative and mostly hyped. I asked my academic advisor (a professor who suggests courses to take, answers questions, etc.), who agreed. The thing that stood out from his answer was: "Yeah. Professors talk about other professors, and ..." Which suggested to me that this was not a solitary opinion. The advisor's point was, without being primed, essentially the same as the other student's: the work often seemed like a rebranding and slight modification of other people's work. FWIW, my academic advisor is the research advisor of the student who first warned me. I didn't tell them what they each said, but I can assume they have talked.

Anyway, now I am wary. How can I better judge for myself, given that I am too junior to honestly know if the work is derivative. The professor is quite young but has been publishing in the top journals/conferences in the field.

  • Seeing as the title specifies "within the department", I would say you already have. Looking at what their students have gone onto, and where they've published will undoubtedly be more insightful, but it's not an "answer" to this question, as asked. – OJFord Jan 18 '17 at 14:12
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    It's almost certain that your advisor was the source of his student's opinion, so I don't think you can read anything into them both giving the same opinion to you. (Though you say "I can assume they have talked" so I guess you've already taken this into account.) – David Richerby Jan 18 '17 at 18:16
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    Be careful. Professors can have a low opinion of other professors based on nothing but subfield. Where I went to graduate school, many of the mathematics profs looked down on the statistics professors, but the latter did perfectly fine research and graduated many successful students. My funniest recollection of this was when the department probabilist felt the need to tell everyone he wasn't a statistician, so that the math faculty wouldn't look down on him... – user11599 Jan 19 '17 at 4:44
  • Be aware that (the professors in) "the department" may be fairly disconnected from the professor's work. Unless we are talking about a very big department, chances are the professor in question is the one professor who is the head of the one institute that does research on topic X, with the sum of all institutes in the department more or less covering the entirety of the field. For instance, in a CS department, there might be a professor with expertise about compilers, one about theoretical CS, one about web-based architectures, etc., but none of them will be particularly knowledgeable ... – O. R. Mapper Jan 19 '17 at 12:02
  • ... about the work of the other professors, except for possible small overlaps of some subtopics. – O. R. Mapper Jan 19 '17 at 12:03
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First of all, every academic has their own opinion of others' work. Just because a student (or your advisor) thought that someone else's work was not significant does not necessarily mean that it is the truth. Although your advisor cites "others" in relaying his opinions, maybe your advisor and the professor in question hate each other, maybe the department places little importance on the professor's work, etc. On the other hand, note that if the professor is publishing in the top journals, then there are some people who think that your professor's work is great also! The point here is that most of the time, opinions are subjective.

There are a couple of ways that you can judge someone's work, being junior.

The first is to see how their students do after graduation. Look at their recent students and postdocs, and see how many remain in academia. Did they manage to secure good positions? Are they productive with research? These are good indications of whether your professor's work is derivative or original.

Secondly, talk to the older grad students or postdocs. They have been around the field long enough to understand what work is important, but not long enough that they are straightforward with you. Talk to a lot of them, and see if there is a consensus, although it would be difficult to get a fair sample!

But most of all, do what interests you! It is good to have an influential advisor, but unless you really believe in your work, I don't think it matters too much whether your research is important or not.

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    +1 for "Look at their recent students and postdocs, and see how many remain in academia." – Captain Emacs Jan 18 '17 at 19:20
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    "They have been around the field long enough to understand what work is important, but not long enough that they are straightforward with you." Should there be a "not" before "straightforward", perhaps? – Faheem Mitha Jan 18 '17 at 21:55
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    "Look at how their students do after graduation"... I feel like this might be an indicator, but in a more indirect manner than you'd initially expect. Generally speaking, better professors end up with better students in the beginning, so of course their students will generally do better. So yes, it supports what you're saying but very much worth noting the indirect self-selection effect here. – Mehrdad Jan 18 '17 at 23:30
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    @CaptainEmacs, is remaining in academia really the goal of academia? What about getting an excellent and productive job in the field in which one has been educated? – Wildcard Jan 19 '17 at 4:33
  • @Wildcard It's just an example. An excellent and (from the candidate's point of view) attractive job is perfectly fine as an indicator. Mehrdad, as for better students attracting better students - yes, of course, that's one reason to go to a group, not necessarily the prof alone. – Captain Emacs Jan 19 '17 at 10:11
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Publications at top journals/conferences are a major accomplishment and an indicator that his work is seen as significant, at least by the community of his research area.

People from other areas may be generally inclined against that area for various reasons, including a more fundamental/pure stance of their own area (relevant XKCD). But that is a fact of life that one can easily live with, especially since the academic job market does not show a particular trend towards more fundamental/pure research.

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How can I carefully find out if a professor's work is well-respected within the department?

Talk to the dean or director of graduate studies in your department. Your department has a responsibility to guide you in choosing an advisor.

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    Would a dean really tell a student that Professor X's research is rather shallow or considered such by many? I mean, outside of clear-cut cases where X is a quack and his work is built on obvious errors. How much depth and novelty an idea has is notoriously subjective and hard to know; I have seen several fields for which it has been questioned, and I find judging them far from straightforward. I certainly wouldn't expect a dean to volunteer their judgment on such a complex question to a stranger. – darij grinberg Jan 22 '17 at 16:36
  • @darijgrinberg - A stranger? The student is part of his or her flock. The dean can gently steer the student away from the candidate advisor if need be. – aparente001 Jan 22 '17 at 20:32
  • Okay, maybe some will do so (though "gently" always incurs a danger of being misunderstood). But the professor is also part of his or her flock. And the student could always snitch to the professor... I'd personally be happy if deans would be open like this, but I'm not sure how often this is actually the case. – darij grinberg Jan 22 '17 at 22:24

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