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Did I mess up by not choosing a famous advisor?

  1. May 24, 2013 #1
    This has been bugging me for a while.

    Last month I narrowed my choices down two two very good graduate programs. I found that one program I didn't feel very comfortable, so I chose the other one, where I felt like I would be happier and fit in more and a project that seemed more interesting to me. Basically the advice everyone always gives on the interent. As far as the reputation of the overall programs go, they're equal.

    But I wonder if down the road, I'll regret not "sucking it up" and choosing the other school where I had been offered a postion in the lab of a Nobel laureate. This school was my dream school until I actually visited during open house, so maybe this is why I won't let go of the "what if?" state of mind.

    I did notice (just looking back on history) it seems easier to win the Nobel Prize and other awards and gain prestigious faculty positions if your PhD advisor was a laureate. Maybe it's just politics, but who's complaining if the politics work in their favor?

    I'm just tired of contemplating this alone and wanted someone else's opinion on the politics of the science community.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 24, 2013 #2
    I know nothing directly about the topic, but a non political reason could be that "Nobel Laureate" professors are more likely to have made major new discoveries in the field and are therefore best positioned to point their students in the direction of continuing/building on that research.
  4. May 24, 2013 #3


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    Actually it's probably other way. If you're a Nobel laureate it's a lot easier to get super intelligent and hard working people capable of winning a Nobel prize to be your student
  5. May 24, 2013 #4
    You know, I never thought of it that way.

    I just worry about how difficult it is to actually become a professor.
  6. May 24, 2013 #5


    Staff: Mentor

    I don't know but I would be leery of working under a Nobel-Laureate. I can see possible collisions of personality because to the Nobel-Laureate's drive to perfection and the possible taking credit for everything done in the lab.

    Look at what happened to Rosaline Franklin while working with Watson and Crick:


    To be fair this can happen with a not-so-famous advisor too and as graduate student you should be tuned into the political environment and migrate it carefully in order to graduate. As an example, if your advisor loses interest in your work you may be side-lined for some time without guidance which will ultimately affect when and whether you graduate.
  7. May 24, 2013 #6


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    I wouldn't waste too much time second-guessing yourself at this point. It sounds like you put some good time into making a well-thought out decision in a situation in which it will be impossible to know the optimal outcome.

    Sure, there may have been some advantages to having had a more famous advisor. There may have been some disadvantages too.

    Now that you've made your decision, put your best effort into making your choice work.
  8. May 24, 2013 #7
    You made the right choice. You chose the one you were comfortable with and interested in. Quit doubting yourself. You can't go back anyway, its a waste of energy to think about it.

    Are you getting the PhD because you want a tiny shot at fame and fortune? Or are you getting it because you love the subject?
  9. May 24, 2013 #8
    This is a hazardous guess, but I would imagine that the aggregate positive features of working for Nobel Laureates are probably washed out by individual faculty/student variables.

    In other words, if you studied the students of Nobel Laureates and identified, perhaps, that they had on average more grant money, publications, citations, and prizes, and were more likely to obtain faculty/research lab jobs (assuming that's the optimal outcome, of course), you would likely find more variation within a lab or between two labs than global variation between laureate labs and non-laureate labs (or just plain old top level researchers who may not have been awarded a prize). Or you would find that the students have, on average, qualities which set them apart from typical graduate students.

    More broadly, I think worrying about your career is a big mistake. You don't really have that much control over your career. You can work harder and you might be more or less smart than say, me, but a lot of outcome is accidental, to the point where you must accept that you cannot control what will or will not happen, apart from trying harder. Trying to make your career be one way or another is an artificial motivation, and artificial motivations (at least for me) are never terribly motivating; my productivity increases enormously when the motivation is intrinsic (e.g., I am interested in this project, and I should very much like to see it improve!).
  10. May 24, 2013 #9

    There's a scary amount of random variance in PhD outcomes. Many of the most important variables are things like:
    • Is your advisor a narcissist?
    • Will your advisor move and/or get fired in the next 6 years?
    • Will your advisor be interested in the topic you will be interested in 1-6 years from now?
    • Will the other students in your lab inspire you, collaborate with you, conspire against you, or just kind of show up and do nothing?
    It's often impossible to predict the answers reliably, and prestige and awards provide little information about these questions.
  11. May 24, 2013 #10


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    @OP: If you are interested in Nobel-type recognition, you will need to do the work to justify it. It doesn't matter who your adviser is because you need to do the work to earn the recognition. If you can produce some brilliant work, do you think other scholars will look past that and weight your work based on the reputation(s) of your adviser(s)? I certainly hope not.
  12. May 24, 2013 #11


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    No, you did not mess up unless you wanted to be a cynical careerist. Just do the best work you love and can, honestly and as funding, health, family etc permit, and let the chips fall where they may.
  13. Jun 1, 2013 #12


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    Grad school anywhere can be pretty draining. Grad school in a place you don't feel comfortable or happy is a recipe for disaster, even if your advisor is a Nobel laureate.

    If you picked the Nobel laureate, there are good odds you wouldn't see much of him/her. Everbody wants a piece of a Nobel laureate. Their time is extremely valuable. Maintaining that reputation is also important - that can translate into publication delays because your advisor wants to make sure everything is airtight. On the surface, that sounds like a good thing, because you don't want to put out shoddy work. But, if your Nobel laureate advisor wants to make sure everything you do is airtight, but he/she has no time to look at it... how long do you think it would take you to graduate?
  14. Jun 3, 2013 #13
    I would say choosing the Nobel laureate just because they've won the Prize would have been a mistake. A lot of Nobel laureates have not been the student of a Nobel laureate and a lot of Nobel laureates supervise students who end up becoming nobodies.
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