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Choosing a PhD supervisor: young and dynamic or mature and established?

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Dear all,

I've been offered admission by two universities (UCSD and UVa). I am currently weighing these two wonderful options, and I’m considering a lot of factors including prospective advisors and mentors, academic culture, university resources, graduate placement, funding, and location.

I know that the most important of these is my future supervisor. Now, if all other things were equal, I'd be left with what seems to be a Manichaean dilemma.

My recruiter/prospective supervisor at UCSD has been simply great. Besides the fact that my research seems to be perfectly aligned with their* work, the current students at UCSD with whom I've had the chance to talk have had nothing but superlative praise for this particular professor. My prospective supervisor already has plans for me--for example, they're already including me in a panel session that they're preparing for the AAAs in San Jose this year. That being said, the said professor is young and is a very new hire in the department. I believe this is their first job post-PhD, and I also think I might be the first PhD student they will supervise. I can't help but worry about the possibility that my prospective supervisor might eventually want to move to another university before I finish my PhD there. The work of the other professors in the department isn't as aligned with my research interests, although I'm sure one of them would be able to supervise me if I were to stay there. My prospective supervisor and I are going to have another Skype session soon. What should I ask?

My situation at UVa is quite different. While I'm not aware of any specific professor at UVa who really wants to get me in the program, I think there are more members in the faculty (than at UCSD) who can supervise me. One of them is a very famous scholar in the subfield of anthropology that I identify with, and I would definitely love to work with them. Current students there have told me that this professor seems like a likely supervisor for me. However, I know that because they are older and more popular, they are definitely busier and in greater demand. I am afraid that I might not get as much attention and support from them because of this and that this would somehow hurt not only my PhD but also my professional career.

What do you think? Both universities and both professors are really, really great, and I am having such a difficult time deciding. I would greatly appreciate your thoughts! If anyone is interested in specific details, I would be happy to provide them in a PM. If you know anything specific about these two departments, please PM me, too! Looking forward to hearing from you!

* I'm using the gender-neutral singular pronouns they and them.

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It sounds like the new professor is already working on how to incorporate you into their research and their work life -- that's fantastic. Just because they're young and new does not make them incapable. It just means you're both navigating new waters, and you'll have to create your own path for how your Supervisor-Student dynamic is going to work. You'll need to be able to speak up for what you want and remind them of things you need from them, since there's no prior knowledge, and mistakes will probably be made by both of you along the way. The good news, however, is that a young supervisor likely knows how to navigate the Modern PhD World better than any established supervisor, because they just (successfully) graduated and veered into an academic career. It also gives you a chance to explore new research with them and start brand new projects, which can be exciting. And, since you'll be their first PhD student, they'll probably spend more time with you, because... well, that's exciting for them, to have students! I could be wrong, but I feel with a young/new supervisor, you're going into your PhD as more of an (unbalanced) team, rather than a defined "My supervisor is just my supervisor" kind of dynamic. You'll be relying on each other more, as the stakes are on: first time supervising, and first student that sets the stage for others.

You don't know that your supervisor is going to leave the university, and therefore there's no reason to bring it up in any conversation with them. If it happens, it happens. If your dynamic is established by that point, you may pack up and leave with them. It's a non-issue, in my mind.

On the other hand, an older supervisor brings to the table all of the experience. They know the academic world better than anyone else (but they won't know your academic-job market situation nearly as well). They'll have network connections and clout that could help you in the long run. Just because they're busy and in great demand doesn't mean they're a lackluster supervisor - you would have to speak to their current students and see how much emphasis s/he puts on supervising. However, it does mean that because they're established, you'll probably be entering their already very established research - this could make the learning curve smoother, but it could also put you as just a PhD student on their research, and not on your own path. You would need to speak to them and see what they have in mind for you.

I would just go with the research that most interests you, and the advisor you most get along with. If you end up with the new supervisor, you might want to put an older faculty member on your committee, or befriend them as a mentor to you as you navigate academia. If you choose the more established supervisor, you might want to get to know the older PhD students, or befriend a younger faculty member who can mentor you on the job market. Find your balance.

Edited by timetobegin

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I was in the exact same situation. I don't have much to add to @timetobegin 's comment - all of it factored into my decision making. It was an appealing prospect to be a supervisor's first PhD student for all of the reasons timetobegin mentioned and I happened to get along well with that POI. However, the reason I chose the other program was because of the faculty as a whole. Professors - new and established - can leave at any time. They can fall ill, shift priorities, take extended leave, and so on. At one of schools I visited, a couple students chose the program for one particularly well-known professor they chose as their supervisor. They liked the supervisor but their experience in the department wasn't as positive; that professor is now mostly retired and they still have a couple years left. The advice I was given in several instances was not to commit to a program on the basis of one person's work. At the school I chose, I could see myself forming two or three different committees and being supervised by three different professors, depending on how my research interests developed. Despite having an extremely positive feeling about the department with the young POI, I knew that I would have been limited when it came to forming a committee.

I asked both professors about their mentorship style, mutual expectations, and future plans. I told the new professor that I was concerned about being their first student and asked about the challenges they foresaw. I asked the established professor about the kind of student who excels under their supervision and had the opportunity to speak to their current students, who had nothing but good things to say. Keep in mind that university departments are invested in portraying a certain image to recruit PhD students -- just ask the tough questions and listen to the answers.

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How does the funding situation look? Honestly, the junior faculty at UCSD are fantastic, so by the time you finish your PhD, they are going to be really well known in the field. If it’s a sociocultural person I can guess who it is and both of them are awesome in terms of productivity, mentor ship, and pragmatism. You really can’t go wrong. 

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17 minutes ago, Aplomb.Élan said:

How does the funding situation look? Honestly, the junior faculty at UCSD are fantastic, so by the time you finish your PhD, they are going to be really well known in the field. If it’s a sociocultural person I can guess who it is and both of them are awesome in terms of productivity, mentor ship, and pragmatism. You really can’t go wrong. 

Thanks! I sent you a PM!

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You don't say anything about funding, which is a key consideration. I'd also be thinking about the track record of these programs and supervisors when it comes to helping their students get funding to do fieldwork if that's something you'll need to do for your project. I would also think about whether they have or are willing to publish with their students. 

I know traditional wisdom is not to go to a program for one person. But, I basically did that for my PhD and it worked out fine. My supervisor did later leave for another institution but, I was far enough along in my degree that it didn't affect me or alter my plans.

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