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Programs Choosing a PhD supervisor

  1. May 11, 2012 #1
    I'm having a hard time choosing between different supervisors. There is one option of a younger supervisor who is earlier in his academic career and has only just got a grant to do new research and take on new PhD students. He is very friendly and helpful and aware of his students needs. On the other hand, there are options of older, more established supervisors who are already overrun with students and clearly less available to help supervise a new project.

    When written this way, the choice seems obvious. However, I need to know how important it is to have a good name attached to your PhD. How important is it to pick the well regarded supervisor, especially when considering a career in science?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 11, 2012 #2


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    If buying for career, then you should also check that the name has placed his former students in careers.

    However, not all the students of even famous professors have careers in (academic) science. Since a career in academic science is improbable, then you may wish to consider the PhD as a temporary chance to try something you love, in which case "career" considerations are irrelevant.
  4. May 11, 2012 #3
    So are you saying that I should go for a name that has already put people in careers over one that has only recently started taking on students (assuming I want a career in science)? Does this override the relative unavailability and lack of interest in student welfare?
  5. May 11, 2012 #4
    You'll probably be under more pressure to deliver if you work with the younger supervisor. Often with the more established professors you get a lot of your mentoring from senior graduate students and postdocs rather that from the advisor. This isn't always the case, of course, but it often is.

    My suggestion would be to discreetly ask around and see what the culture is like in the older professor's group. Is it collaborative or competitive? This can make a HUGE difference in your grad school experience. I was in a very collaborative group and now, years later, we're like a mafia keeping in touch at conferences and helping each other get jobs. I imagine in a more competitive group you'd be hating life as a student and never want to see the bastards again when you graduated. So that's my advice.
  6. May 11, 2012 #5


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    Yes. But I think this is a very cynical route to take, so I'd advise against using this calculus.
  7. May 11, 2012 #6
    The younger professor! My advisor is young, and I was his first student. He sent me to lots of conferences, and helped me a lot. A younger professor (especially one still looking for tenure) is going to have a lot more skin in the game for helping you look good. The older professor is set, and doesn't necessarily care what happens to you. Also, the younger professor still did get a job in academia - he probably knows more people than you think.

    Also important is the personally any work styles of the advisors - seriously this matters a lot! Find someone who is willing to work with the same style you do. Find out what they expect (meetings, being in the office, deadlines, self directed vs collaborative, etc), and whether that style works for you. This is easier to do by talking to other grad students than by talking to the professors themselves.
  8. May 12, 2012 #7
    I recently went through this myself.

    I chose my supervisor because I already knew him and get on well with him, and he makes it pretty clear what he expects from us. Also, the project was interesting.

    In saying that, I'm one of about 8 students, which is less than ideal. And he also has commitments at an external research body. Another lecturer pulled me aside and said that there are definitely favourites and it can be sink or swim. This worried me a bit, but in truth it means that I'll need to work independently more and feed back results rather than work through an experiment with the supervisor.

    If you find the perfect supervisor, that can commit lots of time to you and is also established so can give you their contacts, then life is good. In reality, you're more likely to need to compromise. BUT, what everyone I have ever asked has told me is that the biggest factor is that you have a good relationship with your supervisor. This makes or breaks a doctorate.
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