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Postdoc PhD advisor?


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So my top school has a fully-funded PhD at a reputable school in my field of planetary science, but the main advisor is a current postdoc at the institute (it's their 2nd postdoc though). This is their first postdoc in this particular subfield of research, but they have 2 years of solid progress with their conference abstracts (& 1 publication on this research).

Should I be concerned about doing a PhD with the main advisor being a postdoc? Is this an uncommon or unheard of situation for STEM fields?

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Well, your actual advisor wouldn't be the postdoc right? PhDs take much longer than a postdoc timescale so they will be long gone before you are finished. Who would your actual thesis advisor be? For now, forget about the postdoc and think about this actual advisor. How would you feel about them being your main advisor throughout your whole degree etc. 

It's pretty common in STEM fields for grad students to primarily/directly work with a postdoc for some aspect of their project or for some projects within the entire dissertation. For example, in my planetary science PhD, I completed several small projects and some of them were led by a postdoc but my main advisor and main mentor was still a professor. 

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Hey TakeruK,

It appears it to be a complex arrangement since this project is fully-funded (4-5 years) with a new NASA grant by the postdoc who works at a partner observatory with the university's Astronomy department. The postdoc specifically said in an email that they are the main advisor and are able to join as a chair of graduate student committees. Their respective advisor works at the partner observatory too...who would presumably be my main advisor. Not sure what to think about the situation unless it is a hint that the postdoc will become a permanent scientist at the partner observatory or something? I would imagine that I will do a lot of work under their guidance though.

I'm sort of speculating at the moment since I have not heard back from them. But I feel confident of being admitted since I have direct research experience with the PhD project.

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Oh, that does sound interesting and complex! 

It sounds like you do have some stability here. It sounds like you are saying the postdoc has the grant so they are covered in terms of funding for 4-5 years. To me, this sounds like the postdoc is really a research scientist with a term contract rather than a typical postdoc. Did they refer to their own position as a postdoc? 

You're right that it might be a hint that the postdoc has a chance to become a permanent scientist. But many Observatories like you describe (I'm thinking of Lowell Observatory in particular with this example) don't offer tenure so you either have a term contract or you are hired indefinitely. Alternatively, many other observatories/institutions are "soft-money", meaning that you have a job there as long as you keep winning grant money to support your salary and your research. Some of these "soft money" institutions have backup funding available to help cover a gap in funding or other infrastructure (now, I'm thinking of SwRI). In all of these cases, these research scientists may have adjunct or other visiting status at the University too, or they may even have dual status.

In any case, I think this would be an okay arrangement if you are happy with it yourself. I think it might be worth getting more details on exactly what the regulations are from the school you would be joining (that is, while your advisor and their advisor would be employed at the observatory, you would still be a student at the University and therefore subject to the school's rules instead). Check with the director of grad studies at the astro department (or whoever is in charge of grad students) about who you are allowed to choose as an advisor and who can serve on the committee to ensure you can have the arrangement you want.

Oh I guess I might have missed one thing. Who is the PI of this NASA grant? Is it the postdoc or the postdoc's advisor? If it's the postdoc then I think you really have not much to lose. Many assistant profs are hired after 1 postdoc and if the postdoc is a PI of a major NASA grant, they must be doing well and I think you aren't any better or worse off with this postdoc vs. a new assistant professor. 

However, if the postdoc's advisor is the PI of the grant and they will be your actual on-paper advisor with the University, then I think what I said above still applies, except the timescale is longer now, which is great (however, the postdoc may be more likely to leave the institute and accept a job elsewhere than a new prof).

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In either case, it sounds like a bet worth taking after hearing your thoughts!

They have referred to themselves and their official profile is listed as a postdoc. This is at a major observatory in Arizona, so the "soft money" institution and partnership with their research scientists might be the likely situation for my postdoc advisor. More specifically, the postdoc was awarded a NASA SSW (Solar System Workings) grant that includes funding to do the graduate student work, so I would believe that they are the PI and the main advisor for the PhD. The research is right up my alley for where I want to go, and I have direct experience and a good background with the science already; so, I would feel confident to wager my bets, especially since getting a large NASA grant is a good sign for the research and postdoc's research capabilities.

Once I hear of my hopeful admittance, I will go ahead and contact the grad director to determine the criteria for grad committees and advisor relations with the partner observatory. 

Thanks for all the help TakeruK!

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