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Choosing advisors, revisited


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Hi everyone, 

I would like to re-ask a question that I may have asked before in some comments. Please indulge me in this repetition. I would be very grateful for fresh/updated perspectives, too, especially from current professors (@StatAssistantProf @cyberwulf). 

I'm a student in my second year at a top 5 (or top 3?) stat PhD program (according to US news, but who knows). I would like to decide whether I'll pursue the industry or academia path by the end of the year. 

Since I've always liked theorems and proofs more than anything else, I may have an academic predilection. 

Now for the issue: I would really appreciate some candid/brutally honest comments on being the first student of a young assistant professor, but who certainly is a rising star. Of course, we all know about the tradeoff between rockstar/influential advisors who are incredibly busy and younger, enthusiastic, friendly, hand-on professors, yet who may not be able to help you that much on the recommendation letters front. Assuming the latter person is what I consider the best fit for me here as an advisor, then is it even worth bothering to pursue academia? Is there a way to feasibly make this work (any examples that you know of) or should I just forget about it, work on something cool for the next 3 years, then move on to something else?

Thank you very much. 

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I think working with an Assistant Prof is probably fine. I have seen some TT faculty who had Assistant Professors as their PhD supervisors and who still landed many campus interviews for tenure-track positions. The most important things to consider when working with an Assistant Professor are:

  • whether their research is a good "fit" and whether they can help you to be competitive in the job market for academia or industry (either because they can help you publish in the top tier journals/conferences or because they have solid industry connections), and
  • whether they are productive enough (by your department's standards) to earn tenure.

If both criteria apply, then I say go for it. Besides, getting a TT position is the sum of many different parts, not just one thing. If your research is in a "hot" area that a hiring department currently lacks expertise in or if their job ad expresses special interest in recruiting applicants from your subfield, then I would think that you would enjoy certain advantages, regardless of who your advisor is. I also think that adcoms consider the strength of the recommendation letters too, not just whom they're written by.

It is a good idea to try to get your work noticed, though, so you can hopefully get a letter of recommendation from somebody who is influential in the field. One of my letter writers when I was on the market was from a pretty prominent name in the field, and this person was neither my PhD or postdoc supervisors... but I interacted with this person fairly regularly and they were familiar with my work, so they were able to write a very good letter for me. I believe that helped a lot.

Edited by Stat Assistant Professor
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Assistant professor advisors have a lot of advantages. They want to get tenure, which means they are super-motivated to publish. Advising a student that lands a good TT job looks really good for their own tenure case as well. When I was a 3rd-5th year grad student, I felt I could really relate to the new assistant profs that we hired on a personal level. The student/advisor line was much blurrier.  

A few disadvantages: less name brand recognition, less experience, and possibly fewer connections. When I got my PhD, the only faculty who left our department in those 5 years was an assistant professor - not sure if that's an overall trend (assistant profs more likely to move than associate or full profs). Having to deal with an advisor that moves institutions is a headache but not insurmountable.

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