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Bill Vanderburgh

First thing, have a look at the thread on here about how committees read/weight reference letters. The typical view (though it is a small sample) seems to be that letters hardly matter to hiring decisions.

For this among other reasons, it seems to me that choosing committee members for a letter that they might write at some future time that will probably not make much difference compared to the letter someone else would write, is less than an ideal way to choose committee members.

The potential supervisor who is more junior is going to be much more invested in OP's success than a retiree will be, in part because making the dissertation excellent will look good for the supervisor and help their career. (The suggestion in the reply Marcus included, to allow the junior person to do the work but not receive the credit as supervisor that would foster their own career and reputation, seems like an abuse to me.)

The best thing to do is to produce the best dissertation and other research that you can, with the help of the advisors who will make the work as good as it can be and who will be most supportive to you. Then the letters will take care of themselves. Ideally the work will be so strong that it stands on its own, without the need for puffing up by the reputations of other people.


I agree with the comment Marcus included above – often (but not always) prestigious, senior faculty are not as detail-oriented as more junior faculty when it comes to overseeing writing. The most impactful member (by far) of my committee for the development of my dissertation was my second reader, and they were content with that situation, even when I raised worries that they were not being properly recognized for their mentorship. You can sometimes get the best of both, so long as you have open conversations with your committee to make sure that everyone is on the same page.

disgruntled recently tenured

Please don't put senior members of faculty in roles where they get more credit, and then not give credit to junior members (who actually NEED the credit for tenure) by demoting them on your committee or not having them on your committee but making them do work for you. If someone is doing the most work for you, giving you the most feedback, etc.--they should be the chair of your committee. Strongly disagree with teh idea that everyone knows how this works and it's fine--what matters for things like merit raises and tenure are what your actual technical role was. You're expecting someone to work for free--actually for free, not, like, as a part of their salaried job--if you don't allow them to get service/teaching/advising credit for advising your dissertation.


Please do not contribute to university toxicity by either (if you are a senior faculty) using a junior faculty member in the way described in the original position or (if you are a junior faculty) allowing yourself to be exploited in this way by a senior faculty member. The fact that there are still people out there who see this as acceptable behavior is quite depressing.

I think it is too old fashioned...

I do not think the OP faces much of a dilemma. The junior prof's letter is unlikely to be discounted on any ground since they are accomplished and well-connected. In fact, I am inclined to think that their letter would naturally carry more weight than the senior's, given that they work closer with you. Anyway, I heartily recommend making the junior person the chair given the info OP gave. The situation where one might face a dilemma would be something like this: the junior person who is reliable at giving good feedback is unknown or not well-respected.


There is an easy solution to this. Have your main advisor be the junior faculty member, but ask the senior, retired faculty member to be on your committee. That way you get the better mentorship of the junior faculty member AND the prestige of having the senior faculty member be on your committee, with the understanding that they will not give you much time. But, if the work is good, they will write you a good letter. Win win.


You can have them both on your committee, but have the junior person be the chair, for all of the reasons others have given. Also, if the junior person is indeed well connected, they will be the one more likely to introduce you around at conferences, keep an eye out for opportunities for you, etc - all of which I think ends up being much more important on the job market than a letter.

junior faculty members are great

I agree with all the comments about regarding the exploitation of junior faculty members. Don't do it please! But I came here to say that (note this is in the UK) I chose to do my PhD with a primary supervisor who was a junior faculty member at the time. I have been successful on the job market and secured a TT job in the UK. It did not hinder me at all, and if anything, helped me with up to date expertise, connections, advice from recently being on the market etc. Its also worth thinking of (particularly in the US) where they'll be when you actually finish and need letters.

first respondent

Since I gave the original piece of advice, I think I should say that whether it's exploitative depends on whether a faculty member works in an environment where it's going to make any difference to them whether they were the chair of a particular person's dissertation committee. This might be different, for instance, in UK departments that have various scorekeeping systems for how much service one does. But in my American R1 department, it literally made no difference to my future whether I was a chair of a committee or merely served on it. (Certainly not for tenure, what other service I was doing, etc.) Maybe that's the exploitative part. And maybe even given that local arrangement, I somehow lost out in the broader profession by certain students not being identified as having been "mine". But I was much more interested in students' success on the market (which I do, honestly, think was affected by who was their main advisor) than in worrying about that kind of credit.

disgruntled recently tenured

I work in an american R1 department as well and I do think that this is both exploitative (and should say I also agree with Frank about junior faculty not letting themselves be exploited too) and that perhaps there is variance within the US about whether this stuff matters. It certainly definitely does matter in my own department, where not only do merit raises and promotions take graduate student supervision into consideration, but when we distribute other service we assign less service to faculty who are advising more students (and try to minimize teaching responsibilities in various way for them as well). Even if a junior person is never going to have enough students to minimize their service or teaching in this way, it's still unfair to them if senior people are amassing more students who they are getting credit for and thus doing less service or teaching.

I think these differences across departments are easy for grad students to navigate, though: just ask faculty in your department how things work and whether this is a problematic arrangement. Tell them that you are concerned about being exploitative but know that in some departments it won't make a difference, etc. (Though I might ask both junior and senior people, because sometimes junior people aren't yet fully aware of ways it might be problematic.)

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