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anonymous almost phd

In retrospect I can say that having the right kind of personality and commitment to advising was the most important factor for me. Even if your advisor is not an absolute expert in your field, he or she can be very helpful if willing to read your stuff and comment on it, willing to respond to questions, is quick in scheduling things, etc. On the other hand, you might have someone who could help you a lot in principle but does not at all because he or she is too busy or just does not care about graduate students. It is also a pain when you are trying to schedule a defense and your advisor is not getting back to you about things.

Being known in the field is also important, but I would say it is second to the previous one (and these things often come together too). Someone might be very famous but that will be of no use to you if he or she is unwilling to put the effort into introducing you to people.

I have seen both of these types from pretty close, and am really glad I chose whom I chose for an advisor. My advisor was not a senior scholar, but quite respected in his field. His responsiveness have helped me through many hard parts of the project, and also on the market.

Louis Chartrand

I think students can sort of compensate for a non-famous advisor if they're good at establishing relationships with other researchers. This is particularly true when they're aiming at jobs outside academia, where I feel the "ivy league" bias is weaker. On the other hand, a non-supportive advisor will more often than not cripple a student's capacity to establish relationships, because of self-doubt, stress, difficulty to identify her/his forces, etc. So I'd go for the early-career prof anytime.

This is anecdotal, of course. But I had both experiences, and saw similar patterns with my colleagues.


I think it matters a lot what your goals are after graduating. If you want to work at an R1, then adviser reputation is very important. It is far less important if you want to work at a teaching school. Another thing to be sure of no matter where you want to work, is that your adviser will write you good letters and not give you so much trouble you have difficulty graduating. I have seen a number of my friends suffer greatly because they choose a famous adviser who in one case simply refused to write a letter of recommendation, in another case wrote a bad one, and in a third case refused to graduate the student! (They had to switch advisers and take another year to finish the dissertation).

Sara L. Uckelman

My supervisor was senior in his field, but my field was not his field at all, beyond some academic curiosity. He even told me he was a poor choice of supervisor because he couldn't introduce me to the people I'd need to know. But NOTHING could have ever compensated for the energy, support, and interest he had in me and my project. I would go for (1) and recommend others go for (1) ANY day.


(I'm the original questioner)

Hi Sara,

Thanks for this response - interesting. But I guess my worry with going for (1) is that if the person isn't senior enough then their reference won't be worth much to search committees. So even though your supervisor wasn't an expert in your field, surely their seniority (albeit in another area) compensated for that when they wrote your reference letter? Search committees will have seen his name and thought, 'ah, he can be trusted to know a good student when he sees one!' Whereas search committees might be less impressed by a reference from someone they've barely heard of, however enthusiastic it is...

Can one perhaps compensate for a not-very-famous advisor by having, say, famous people as one's examiners? I'd be really interested to hear from people who've served on search committees about this...


Here are my two cents, or better yet, my experience. I had a supervisor who was very nice and supportive, but he had stopped his own research career some time before I began working with him. I was able to finish in 5 years in a program where people took 6 years on average. I had already published in decent journals.
My time on the market until my first Tenure Track job was long and hellish. He was very supportive, but largely unknown.
I have been a very productive scholar, but that experience was extremely difficult. Others who have endured similar experiences on the market have even had their marriages end.


Anonymous (the original poster):
Here's a different suggestion than what you offer (compensating for a non-famous adviser by having famous committee members). Why not compensate for having an unhelpful famous adviser by having really helpful and enthusiastic committee members? You get the benefit of a famous adviser and you still get to work with people who are really excited about your work.

I suggest this because in my experience (I'll go on the market this fall), it is VERY important to have people who are very excited about your work and invest in you. But the benefit of this comes out in the quality of your work, mostly, and you get that benefit regardless of whether the excited/investing party is your adviser on paper. (This all assumes you can get a good letter from your famous adviser. If that's not the case, it's obvious to me that you shouldn't even have that person on your committee.)


Justin I agree your plan sounds good. I think people pay very little attention to who your committee members are, but a lot of attention to your adviser.(at least at R1s) So if there is an agreeable person who is famous but not great with feedback, great committee members could make everything work out fine.

Sam Clark

Friendly meta-comment: several of the responses are talking about the PhD student's 'committee', but the OP specifies graduate school in the UK, where doctoral students don't have a committee, but have one or two supervisors.


Relating to this, and I stress this to admitted students, it seems to me that students considering multiple phd admissions offers should look seriously at the placement histories of particular faculty. Some faculty place really well--that is probative of what might happen down the road. Other faculty might be famous, might have great work, but for whatever reason don't tend to place well. You might the exception, but betting on being the exception is, imho, a bad bet.

It is ridiculous to have to start picking your advisor before you've enrolled, but it is probably wise to be ridiculous in this case.


OP here.

Thanks for the comments everyone. It seems there's something of a consensus that you probably need both a helpful/engaged supervisor AND a prestigious (for want of a better word!) supervisor, and that, at least as a primary supervisor, you should go for the prestigious supervisor over the helpful one, and hope that you can find help from committee members/secondary supervisors.

Another question that occurred to me reading this through is whether institutional prestige or supervisor prestige is more important. Clearly departmental placement records are strongly correlated with ranking in the Gourmet report, but I wonder what's doing most of the work for students here: is it that they have 'Oxford/NYU/Harvard etc' on their CV, or is that they have 'Williamson/Chalmers etc' as their supervisor? The question arises for students in the UK who might have a choice of working with not-very-famous person at, say, Oxford, or working with a very famous person at, say, UCL, which is considerably lower ranked. I'm genuinely unsure what such a person should do.


I think institutional prestige is more important. I don't have great reason for that, it just seems to me that persons with high institutional prestige (at least if we are talking top 10) have an advantage that is hard to top by anything else, even a great adviser. I would be happy to hear if others disagree.

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