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Selecting an advisor: young vs old


NYLA
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Hi,

So I'm sure I'm not the only one who is heavily considering who they will work for at the actual graduate school in the decision making process, and I'm having a hard time deciding because at each school I like very different people (although the overall research topic is roughly the same). What it's boiling down to is an argument for old-ish advisors (well established, recognized names) vs young-ish advisors (come from great backgrounds but relatively little experience as a PI).

I was just wondering if any current students would weigh in with their experiences to help us incoming students out?

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I went with a young advisor, and I'm quite happy I did. You want to be careful you don't end up with someone likely to move/not get tenure, but if they've got good backgrounds and are publishing/getting funding, that's not too likely.

I really enjoy working for a younger advisor- he has less "experience" as an advisor, but he's also less set in his ways. There's also a lot more of a collegial atmosphere with him- the stresses of grad school, marriage in grad school, etc. aren't so far away for him, and it's much easier to talk to him about them. It's also nice to be in "on the base level". A lot of advisors are more likely to remember their initial grad students, and if things work out I think you end up with a much "closer" colleague and mentor for the long haul.

From a research side, young professors have a vested interest in getting both funding in and publications out- and that's often good for grad students. You're more likely to get experience working on grant proposals, and they're more likely to be as eager to get your publications out as you are. Similarly, you often are in a position to have more input into your project, since it's not such a well established, well formed piece of work.

On the other hand, older, more established researchers often have the luxury of making sure everything is just right before sending a paper off. It's not a bad thing, but it can mean it takes a lot longer to get each publication out and to reviewers. It's fine for the PI, since they're established, but for the grad student, it can mean less publications while you're there.

For the pros of older, more established advisors- they usually have more funding and lab space, as well as established projects to work on.

These are just my observations and generalities- they definitely don't apply everywhere. Some younger advisors can be much less flexible since they really want to make their first ideas work, and some more established advisors are a lot more laid back and flexible in letting their grad students explore different things. I'd gauge it more based on the personality than anything.

Also remember that you can use collaborations, as well as invite older more established faculty to be on your committee, if you want their advice, guidance, name, etc. You're never really limited to one advisor only!

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Eigen gave a pretty good summary of the key differences. Just for the sake of balance though, let me emphasize some of the advantages for working for an established professor. First, there is the mentorship aspect. Older professors will have much more experience, which means that potentially they may offer you more guidance on your project or your field in general. Even if you prefer a hands-off approach it may be helpful to have an experienced advisor who can give you some quick ideas about how you may troubleshoot a project for instance. In terms of writing papers, it's true that established professor will tend to be less rushed, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, as the additional time you spend polishing a paper and collecting supporting data might make the difference between a lower and higher tier journal (and plus the reputation of the advisor will in many cases help with publication in the latter). Finally, while younger professors as eigen said have a vested interest in ensuring a fast throughput, the downside is that you may feel more pressure in the beginning to focus on obtaining publishable data, which might be especially difficult in the beginning, when you have other responsibilities, such as teaching and coursework that you need to balance.

Oh, and in regards to the risk of an assistant professor not attaining tenure, unfortunately this can be notoriously hard to predict, especially for professors just starting out. And of course, this risk will vary greatly from one school to another. For instance, at MIT only about half of the professors (in the university as a whole) obtain tenure, while at Harvard it's even less, and of course all these professors must have had stellar credentials to have gotten those jobs in the first place.

Edited by tso123d
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Honestly, I asked the department chair point-blank when I was interviewing what chance there was that my prospective PI wouldn't get tenure, and what would happen if he didn't. It's not a sure thing, but everyone is pretty understanding of that being a worry.

Some very nice counterpoints- thanks for bringing them up.

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There's also the option of associate professors in the middle who might act like a younger or an older faculty member. I been asking the graduate students of these professors and I find some are still pretty vested in their graduate students even after establishing a name/funding/connections.

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To me it isn't really about AGE so much as how well I get on with them (on a personal and professional level), research interest overlap and if I like the rest of the group. 

 

It also varies on the personalities of the grad students themselves: if you like/need a lot of close contact with a faculty member then a younger professor might be naturally a better fit, if you prefer plenty of headspace and independence then an older professor might be a better option. 

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