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Harsh Advisors or Laid Back?

  1. Apr 16, 2014 #1
    So there's a group at my school that does very cool research - pretty much exactly what I'd like to be doing. However, the advisor I'd most likely be working under is known to push his students very hard - long hours, work weekends, seems to have little patience with them etc... This group also has a ton of funding, and none of their students TA.

    I have the option of working with another guy though, who is in a similar field but doesn't quite do what I was originally looking for. However, he is very laid back, understanding and overall a very cool guy, and yet still seems to put out a good amount of publications. Not sure about his funding situation.

    Any opinions or advice about this situation? Which would you pick?
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 16, 2014 #2


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    I personally find working with people that rubs me the wrong way to be living hell. So when a viable alternative is available I always avoid it.
  4. Apr 16, 2014 #3
    It really depends on you.

    Some people like to be pushed a lot and need it in order to be productive. So the harsh advisor would be better for them since it pushes them to do more and better research.

    Other people can't stand being pushed and might develop serious problems such as burn-out and depression.

    So yeah, there is no one and true answer to this. You should ask yourself what kind of person you are and which kind of advisor is suitable for you

    Personally though, I would think your advisor is more important than your topic. So I would not pick a unsuitable advisor even if it's a topic I really like. I rather take a suitable advisor with some topic that might not be my favorite (but that I hope I will enjoy somewhat). That's just my personal point of view though. If you're very ambitious and if succeeding academically is the most important thing in your life, then the topic might be more important to you than a suitable advisor.
  5. Apr 16, 2014 #4
    Be careful about what it means to be harsh. Some people cannot distinguish between being harsh and being a complete jerk.
  6. Apr 16, 2014 #5
    True. Perhaps it would be a good thing to talk to the grad students of both professors?
  7. Apr 16, 2014 #6


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    You know, as micromass suggested, I would talk to some of this professor's students. Harsh can mean two things: high standards or unreasonable expectations. If it is high standards I think that's a good thing. If it is unreasonable expectations or if your advisor is a jerk, thats a hard way to spend a few years.

    I had an advisor who was considered harsh and intimidating. In fact, he actually just had high standards and he was a fair, very insightful and helpful mentor. I think I am a much better engineer for the experience. On the other hand, I had friends who had to deal with unhelpful jerks as an advisor. That I would try to avoid.

    How to figure out what to do? Talk to grad students and try to read between the lines. Also, if you get a chance to have a meeting with the advisor pay close attention to what is said and what kind of vibe you get.

    Good luck!
  8. Apr 16, 2014 #7
  9. Apr 16, 2014 #8
    For some reason this does not make me feel excited about going to college.
  10. Apr 16, 2014 #9
    Was it the comic? It's just a bit of humor, don't take it too seriously.

    Sure, lots of people are miserable in academia as a grad student. This can be for a variety of reasons such as a bad advisor, not liking research, personal issues,... Then again, lots of people are miserable in a usual job too. Many people I know really did enjoy grad school quite a lot and would do it again in a heartbeat. So it's not a bad deal at all. You just need to do a little bit of research beforehand (like finding out the right topic, the right uni, the right advisor, ...) instead of jumping into research without thinking.
  11. Apr 16, 2014 #10


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    Virtually anything worth doing with your life is going to be hard. Research can be an incredible career but it isn't all roses. Like anything else. Micromass gives good advice. To be happy and successful is equal parts self-knowledge and due diligence.
  12. Apr 16, 2014 #11
    All of the above. Talk to the grad students, especially when the advisors are not around and maybe with a drink or two in their system. That's where they really spill the beans, you can get a good idea of what advisor to avoid this way. Find out things like if they are expected to be in the lab/office every single weekend or get some liberty to travel/have some family time.

    There's the other extreme, advisors who are never available and can only meet you every once in a while. The fit depends a lot on personality, but maybe a prof like that can be good for you (or a harsh prof if you're the type that gets lost on your own with too much freedom).
    Last edited: Apr 16, 2014
  13. Apr 16, 2014 #12


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    My prof was like this. He is famous in our little niche and had a reasonably big group so I only got to meet with him once a week. If you hadn't made significant progress in that week and you hadn't thought through your issues he would rip you a new one. On the other hand, if you'd worked hard and came with intelligent questions he was incredibly helpful. I used to get pissed off sometimes that I would struggle with a problem for literally days and my advisor would help me solve it in 10 minutes. I learned a lot and the transition from grad school to the meat-grinder of the semiconductor industry was much less painful.

    We all know plenty of graduate students who do almost nothing. Advisors who are soft and let their students get away with that are not doing their students any favors. Also, there are also plenty of graduate students with slave-driver advisors who make them work on Saturdays. Try to find the middle ground. Your career will thank you.
  14. Apr 16, 2014 #13
    Sounds like my kind of guy, once a week would probably be about right for me to keep me on track. I've heard of many advisors not seeing their students for 1-2 months or more because of other commitments or sabbaticals (but they were always available via email). I had an advisor like that for my senior project and I lost a lot of time wandering in the dark. When he was around, we did meet once a week or so, and that's when things really accelerated and got me excited to sit down and work for 8 hours straight. If only I had more of this early on!

    One of my potential advisors in grad school now is a recent hire, and I would likely be his first student. I get the impression he would be kind of like this, I hope. He is young (christ, looks younger than me) compared to most faculty and maybe not as "hardened", but I got the feeling he'd like to meet once a week or so to really get things on track.
    Last edited: Apr 16, 2014
  15. Apr 16, 2014 #14


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    That could work out well but be careful. If he doesn't get tenure he will vaporize and you'll have some hard decisions to make. On the other hand he is motivated to prove himself so you might get more personal support from him. It's a tough call.
  16. Apr 16, 2014 #15
    Indeed, but I also intend to work with the other more veteran faculty that are really big names in the field too. I have a bit of liberty in my first years as I got a fellowship.

    How long after an initial hire are tenure-track profs "evaluated"? This fellow I speak of got quite a bit of funding under his belt and has lots of contacts, I get the impression he won't be going anywhere before I finish. By recent hire I mean extremely recent, as in less than 365 days.
  17. Apr 16, 2014 #16


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    It varies from institution to institution. At the National Lab where I work if you don't have tenure after 5 years you're out. In universities I think it can be a little longer. Often when you're denied tenure you get to finish out your contract so you don't have to leave right away (unless you get another job). If this guy already has funding he may be a star and hitching to his wagon might be a good thing.

    You're reminding me how hard it is to make stereotypes. My advisor is well known in my micro-niche and he was an incredible mentor. Other famous professors in my niche are infamous for making senior grad students do their advising for them and you only get serious contact with the prof your last year or two. It all depends. Do your research!

    You sound like you're going in with your eyes open so unless you're unlucky it will probably work out fine.
  18. Apr 16, 2014 #17
    Maybe. He did seem very enthusiastic about having me on board and made it very clear that it was in his best interest to have students that succeeded, ended up as research professors, etc., that it is a mutually beneficial thing. I assume this is because their track record with their graduates is used as merits to boost their chances of tenure later down the line?
  19. Apr 16, 2014 #18


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    That's right. Professors are continually evaluated throughout their careers. Even when they get full professor there are still usually several levels of advancement (different ranks of professor). These ranks are hidden on their business cards but they do give more salary and other perks. Every time a professor gets a promotion they need to get letters of rec from people outside the institution and they need to submit a CV that includes how successful their students are. So if you end up at a name school it will make your advisor look good.
  20. Apr 16, 2014 #19
    That's good to hear. It would be nicer to know my prof was helping me succeed solely for self-less reasons, but if the end result is the same I'm not complaining! Ultimately, I felt wanted at the school, so I think any of the profs I end up working for are a good choice.
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