In the comments section of our most recent "How can we help you post?", a reader asks:
The following question will be relevant to people who are soon to decide about which graduate school to attend in the UK (but will also be relevant for US students currently at graduate school):
When one is selecting a supervisor for one's PhD thesis, what's most important: (1) the supervisor's energy, engagement with your project, level of expertise, etc; or (2) the supervisor's seniority and worldwide reputation? Obviously, in a perfect world, one would want one's supervisor to have all these attributes, but this isn't a perfect world. If one has to decide between a supervisor that fits the attributes in (1) but not those in (2), and one who fits the attributes in (2) but not so much those in (1), what should one decide? (Let me pre-empt an obvious reply: get them both on your supervisory team. Sure, but that's not possible if they're at different institutions.)
I've heard it said that one should never be supervised by someone who isn't at the top rung of the career ladder, because it will make it much harder to get a job after one's PhD. Does this sound right? Can relatively inexperienced supervisors place their students?
Really good question. I recall hearing the same things as this reader: that if one has to choose between the two types of advisor, one should pick the 'famous' senior figure over the less-well-known, earlier-career person. But, as someone who is generally skeptical of intuitions (both philosophical and professional), I wonder what the evidence actually supports. To that end, it might help to hear from readers who have personal experience on either side of the issue:
- For those of you who selected a more senior faculty member with an excellent worldwide reputation who wasn't ideal in terms of energy and engagement with your project, how did you fare--both in terms of finishing the PhD, and on the job market?
- Similarly, for those of you who selected a less 'famous', earlier career person who was (more) ideal in terms of their energy and engagement with your project, how did you fare--both in terms of finishing the PhD, and on the job-market?
Here are my highly anecdotal impressions. I've seen some people really struggle--both in terms of finishing the degree, and the job-market--choosing the less-than-helpful "famous" senior person. I think it can probably be really hard to come up with a good dissertation topic, finish the dissertation, and publish successfully with a person who lacks enthusiasm or investment in your work, regardless of their notoriety. At the same time, I've seen less of the other case: students who choose an early-career person with less notoriety. So, I'm really not sure if I can make that good of a comparison between the two.
Here, though, is what I do feel safe saying: the students who I have seen consistently do the best--both in terms of finishing the PhD and success on the job-market--have been those who find the "ideal advisor" the reader talked about: the senior figure with a worldwide reputation who is also energetic and invested in the flourishing of their advisees. To me, this underscores just how important it is to both (A) find out about faculty before joining a grad program (are the "famous" people good advisors with a good track record getting their students jobs?), as well as (B) be really proactive in getting to find, know, and work with these "ideal mentors" early on in grad school, so that they are the ones you can have as your advisor.
Anyway, I will be curious to hear from readers with experience on this one!