Very much as the title states; what should I expect being my supervisor's first PhD student?

I understand that there are likely both pros and cons to this - however I'm looking to hear the experience of others, and how this compares to experience of those who have had a supervisor with previous students.

  • 12
    He/she is very interested to get you graduated as soon as possible to be able to get promoted to tenure.
    – Leila
    Mar 17, 2017 at 2:56
  • 3
    Pro: your supervisor will have much more time than in a later stage of his career, will care more about your topics, and will also give you ideas and topics that he had for a long time without having time to work on them.
    – noleti
    Mar 17, 2017 at 6:23
  • 1
    Please clarify: "first PhD student" as in, the first PhD student the supervisor was officially the supervisor for, or the first PhD student the supervisor has ever remotely counseled? In any case, a hard transition from never having advised a PhD student to being fully responsible for one seems unusual to me. Mar 17, 2017 at 11:23
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is a broad request for experiences, not a concrete answerable questoin. Mar 18, 2017 at 1:25
  • 2
    @Seeda The concept of "tenure" is not universal. It doesn't exist in the UK, for example. Mar 18, 2017 at 10:14

7 Answers 7


I was my supervisor's first Ph.D. student and I survived the experience...

Although your advisor is almost certainly trying to do a good job, the simple fact is that neither you nor your advisor has ever done this before so mistakes are likely.

My advice would be to make sure that your dissertation committee includes some more experienced faculty and get them involved in the process (e.g. by having meetings with your full committee, having the committee review dissertation proposal and attend presentations that you might give on the work) as early as possible.

  • 7
    "nor your advisor has ever done this before" - maybe that is location-specific, but I have seen various postdocs who got very gradually involved with supervising PhD candidates, very smoothly taking them from never having done that before to almost completely having done that before by the time they became professors. Mar 17, 2017 at 11:20
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    @O.R.Mapper may I suggest that's almost an answer? My conclusion from your comment would be that the OP should try to talk to the students in the group where the new supervisor was most recently a postdoc. (I also suggest that the process starts earlier in the career, with experienced PhD students training/looking after new starters)
    – Chris H
    Mar 17, 2017 at 13:55

My favorite "pro" would be the exciting experience of helping to put a lab together from an empty room, if the PhD is in the sciences and the mentor is building her first lab. The value of such an experience can be huge.

As with many things, this can be a pro or a con. The "con" side is that this is a frustrating procedure. Things will take longer than if you walked into an established lab. You and your mentor will make mistakes. Some of the money spent will be wasted.

The "pro" side is that you will have the experience of building a lab. You will understand the whole lab much better than somebody who walks in to a developed lab. You will have more input into the final product, and thus, more ownership. You'll get to help spend startup money. You'll learn how choices are made.

In the balance, I think this is a positive aspect.

  • Some people see this as a risk: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/84586/…
    – asquared
    Mar 17, 2017 at 19:21
  • @JayFromA As with everything, there are high points and low points. I'll edit the post Mar 17, 2017 at 19:22
  • I agree that this is overall a "pro". I just posted the link because the answer there adds another viewpoint. I think your edited answer covers this aspect well now.
    – asquared
    Mar 17, 2017 at 19:32
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    How is this in the question at all? (i) There are plenty of PhDs in the sciences that do not require setting up a lab; (ii) it is perfectly possible for OP's supervisor to be embedded in a larger group that already has a lab; and (iii) the situation you describe could equally well happen with an experienced supervisor who has recently changed institutions. If the difficulty of setting up a lab from scratch were a factor, the OP would most likely have mentioned it. As it is you're answering a question that's entirely uncorrelated with the one posed.
    – E.P.
    Mar 17, 2017 at 21:05
  • @E.P. edited to add the conditional you seem to want. Mar 17, 2017 at 21:38

I was my supervisor's first PhD student, and honestly I would not recommend it. The main downsides were

  1. He did not have grant funding, and I have had to TA almost every semester of my PhD, even though this is very atypical in my department. He said he was going to get grants, but he just never did.

  2. He was a terrible manager (in several ways) and kept switching management styles. I didn't find this out beforehand because he had no other PhD students to warn me about this. However, it is probably pretty common for new professors to be poor managers, because they don't have a lot of experience in managing students. (It is probably common for older professors to be poor managers too, since professors get very little management feedback from their students.)

  3. In general, you have no idea whether the advisor will be good or not because there is no track record and no lab alumni you can talk to.

  • 3
    Any upsides? Also, your points 1 and 2 are not restricted to new advisors; i.e., more experienced advisors may also not have funding for their advisees or may not be very good managers.
    – Mad Jack
    Mar 17, 2017 at 2:59
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    Sorry, but none of your points is valid: (1) is true for many people not just young people, and you should have discussed the funding with him beforehand, no matter whether he's experienced or not. (2) is true for many people as well, moreover, if you're the first, the supervisor is more likely motivated to do his best, if you're #12, you're often simply #12 and nothing more. (3) is a problematic point, because people do change, and they do change a lot, so any information from his former PhD students has to be considered carefully.
    – yo'
    Mar 17, 2017 at 10:35
  • If everyone took your advice then academia as a whole would die out after the current generation of professors who already had students retires. Your first two points seem more specific to your advisor than to any "new advisor".
    – user9646
    Mar 17, 2017 at 16:39
  • I would argue that 1&2 are just as possible to occur with any professor, and in terms of having other people to warn you, well, a lot of that depends on personal styles too. You may clash with an advisor but that doesn't mean they are a bad advisor: it only means they may be a bad advisor for you.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 17, 2017 at 18:58

I was the first PhD student of a mathematician who was already a very strongly established researcher at the time. It was an extremely valuable and positive life experience for me and I consider my choice of the advisor a major hit of luck.

You can expect the first-time tutor to be more motivated to help you succeed than one who already leads several students. That's a definite plus. Motivation is one thing, ability another.

You should look closely at where the potential advisor themselves are before you start, and whether it would be a huge step forward for you to ever get professionally to where the potential advisor already is. Consider their past projects, publications, collaborators, funding, their position in the department where you will be a student; also their skills and values that appeal to you personally, especially their skills to explain known things and stimulate curiosity about the unknown. Expect that they will teach you achieving just a subset of what they already achieved themselves; and only if they are a good teacher. Spend enough time with the potential advisor and their closest collaborators beforehand to make sure you've tasted what you will be getting if you sign up, before you decide.

Did the potential advisor lead any undergraduate students in research related projects before? Do you know of any PhD students who are already benefiting from working with your potential advisor, although their primary or formal advisor is someone else? How is your potential advisor successful as a course instructor?

While you will be part of their future research, many technicalities will likely be similar to what they achieved in their past research, or to what's generally achieved in the department they are starting to work in, by researchers of a similar track record.


I was also my adviser's first PhD student, and I got my own first student recently. The short answer to this question is that it's not obvious what to expect and it depends a lot on the personalities and academic upbringing of both student and adviser.

As a PhD student I had a lot of trouble with my adviser's micromanaging. I didn't like that, but he could do it because I was his only student. Second problem was that he had no idea what my thesis should be about. I tried three different projects until we finally figured out what to do together. Grant money was not a problem because he had both a grant and startup money, so I was research assistant for the whole duration of my PhD. Once we started to get along, after two years of working together, things came out nicely and by the end of my PhD I had a few good papers to show.

From my perspective as a guy starting to advise younger scientists, things are different. At first, I tried not to repeat things my PhD adviser and my postdoc bosses did, and I perceived them to be wrong. Then, I realized they may not be wrong if applied to other people than me. The same thing can be said about things I thought my supervisors did right.

So, first thing to expect from a first time adviser is to try to adapt what he perceived as good in the groups he worked before, while avoiding what he perceived as bad. If it doesn't work, they might try to overcompensate doing the opposite, so they would look inconsistent. For example, in my case, I had lots of trouble as a student approaching completely new problems. I'd try to read entire books and after weeks of disorganized searching, I'd end up with no answer. My adviser original approach was to let me do my thing which was his adviser's approach and worked for him. When he realized it didn't work for me, he started micromanaging things very tightly. Though the extra discipline did help, I resented it.

Another thing that might happen is that the new adviser might be inexperienced with teaching. This might be the case of people who excelled at research and got their position because of it. As their student, you may expect them not to be very pedagogical when teaching you new things if they actually do.

Many people who become new faculty feel insecure about their research. Their older colleagues may have hundreds of publications, and they may have a few tens at most. Plus, they need to get tenure. Some new faculty tend to get abusive with their students, plus they keep jumping from one project idea to another and it's very frustrating for a new student to spend three weeks researching something only to find out it's not needed anymore by the time they have an answer.

Something else I've seen in graduate school is new faculty who don't get tenure and their students need to finish the PhD with someone else. You can't predict if a new faculty will get tenure right away, but, in my field, if they don't make new collaborations, they most likely won't publish enough to get it.

I don't think it's inherently bad to be someone's first PhD student. They are pressed to obtain funding as a tenure requirement, and the ones that are good at grant writing, will soon have a larger team. As the first member of that team, your research assistant support will be ensured.


Well, the same as you should expect from any supervisor: guidance, support, constructive critique, one-on-one meetings of appropriate frequency, and some insight into how the internal process at your institution works (he/she might have to familiarise him-/herself with that).

One aspect where lacking experience with PhD students might have an impact is the "proper calibration" around what constitutes a PhD-worthy topic and what constitutes a sufficiently comprehensive body of work. Likely the supervisor only has his/her own PhD to extrapolate from, and particularly when the supervisor has moved after the PhD and entered a significantly different academic culture, some adjustment may be needed (that was the case for me). Because of that I would hope that the supervisor is open to engage with some sort of mentor (a more senior colleague with already some PhDs under the belt) to talk about this. You might consider to have such a person as a co-supervisor.


Let me also add an answer to this question, but notice that I'm not a PhD but a Master's student now.

My supervisor for bachelor's diploma and research was a very well-known scientist who also was a head of the department. At first I thought that it was a great choice because of experience but then I realised it wasn't. When going to some famous person be sure that he or she would have enough time for you (answering your questions, explain some theory that wasn't cover in general courses, etc), especially if he or she is busy with some kind of administrative work. That leads to the situation where de jure my advisor was a famous mathematician but de facto I was supervised by his PhD student.

As opposite to this experience now I am working on my master's thesis under supervising of recently graduated PhD holder (just to be more precise, he is only 28 years old when I'm 22). This choice was a major hit of luck since firstly I didn't consider this opportunity and joined only after some other professors recommend him as a good and wise expert in my area of interest. I am very satisfied with my supervisor and till this moment have only pros. He really takes care about what I do, give quick answers to emails, always able to explain something unclear to me and looks very interested in good quality of my research.

So as my personal experience I would suggest not to be afraid of being someone's first student. Your advisor would probably have more time and motivation to work closely with you.

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