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Hey all,

 

I recently received an interview for a PhD program, which I am of course thankful for. My POI is a first year professor, meaning I would be his first and only graduate student this year if I receive an offer (I realize it's a big "if"). It's not that I am doubting his abilities by any means, but the thought of being the only graduate student in the lab as a first year student makes me a bit uneasy. Has anyone had any experience with this or a similar situation that can provide some insight? Thanks in advance!

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I just finished my first semester in grad school, and my boss started our lab here in July :) Last year, I was offered spots in top schools, but eventually turned them down to go work for him. Why I have come to that decision? I considered these:

 

1. How self-motivated are you? - For many months, I was office-less, because the lab was being built. Everything we started from scratch, and I meant everything! My field is computational theoretical chemistry, and we started without desktops/ computer clusters/ desks! Every calculation, every script was started by me, or him.  I have had no senior graduate student to help me out with troubleshooting. 

 

2. How good is your mentor-mentee relationship? - If you really consider working for this POI, Skype with him often. Ask him to lecture you on things. Email students that worked with him during his postdoc to learn about his working/teaching style. Read his papers. Not only you have to truly believe in his potential, but also have to build a solid relationship with him. Being the first student, you would have to work one-on-one with him a lot. There is no way around it. 

 

I arrived early to do full-time research, so it's been a solid 6 months. Overall, I'm happy with my decisions. I have learnt more than I had ever learnt, and now I'm starting to mentor new undergraduates and graduate students in the lab. It's a truly rewarding experience to start something from scratch, and to do it with a very enthusiastic and awesome scientist. If you have more qs, PM me :)

Edited by heartshapedcookie
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Hey all,

 

I recently received an interview for a PhD program, which I am of course thankful for. My POI is a first year professor, meaning I would be his first and only graduate student this year if I receive an offer (I realize it's a big "if"). It's not that I am doubting his abilities by any means, but the thought of being the only graduate student in the lab as a first year student makes me a bit uneasy. Has anyone had any experience with this or a similar situation that can provide some insight? Thanks in advance!

Do you have other professors you're interested in? I would be far more concerned with the fact that your POI has tenure to worry about. If they're denied tenure, then what are you going to do? 

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Many grad students work on their PhDs for more than six years. In fact average in psychology from the 70's to early 2000's was 7.2-7.3 years, and hardly faster in chemistry, 6-6.5 years (http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf06312/...there are more recent updates to this, but I like the long-term synthesis here). Meanwhile tenure can take anywhere from 4-8+ years, depending on the institution and extended tenure clocks for things like pregnancy, or shortened clocks for profs transferring from another institution. So there is a very real chance that it that time your professor may not get tenure, or may find a better postiiton elsewhere in the country, or may decide that the grind of grant-writing all the time is not what they really had in mind and leave academia.

 

A young, motivated prof can be great in terms of enthusiasm and getting work out the door, but you don't want to put yourself in a place where you are in competition with your advisor. They need to crank out papers to achieve tenure and build recognition for grants--that can mean they have an incentive to publish at your expense, but which I mean rushing publication on something you are writing up, or taking over the writing alltogether. This isn't always a conscious thing. Overambition at the research end can be just as bad, and end up with you overworked and unhappy.

 

Having worked with first time advisors, mid-career professors, and older, tenured profs nearing retirement, my personal experience has been that advising quality is pretty much proportional to time advising. Part of this has to do with less stress for them and more time, more practice advising, and most importantly learnign how to communicate as an advisor--sometime new profs are pretty close to you in age and have trouble putting a line between professional and peer relationships. New advisors also lack management experience--super important for PIs, essentially ignored in graduate programs.

 

I'm not saying it can't work, but you are taking a much larger risk than if you joined an established group. A useful book I have only just discovered but wish I had 3 years ago, is A PhD is not Enough! by Peter Feibelman. It itemizes many of the mistakes that have made grad school less than pleasant for me. Number one on his list is don't be a guinea pig for a new advisor. You can always put this super awesome person you want to work with on your committee and still get face time.

Edited by Usmivka
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When I began in my advisor's lab, he was a third-year assistant professor and I was in his group of first doctoral students.  He had three: me, my labmate who came in at the same time, and an advanced student that he inherited from someone else who he only began advising that same year.  He was also in the process of beginning his lab, so he had limited support staff at the time.  My secondary advisor was a full professor with an established lab group.  I was able to both compare the two of them and also I've seen the changes over the past 6 years in my primary advisor's lab group.

 

1. You must be very self-motivated.  All professors are busy, but in my experience senior professors who aren't chasing tenure have more time for their students - more time for the little bits and pieces mentoring.  This will vary a lot, though - my primary mentor is amazing; we've always met biweekly and he makes time if I need more frequent meetings.  But he's also always flying somewhere to give talks or presentations or meet with people because he's trying to get tenure at a prestigious RU/VH, which is ROUGH.  At the beginning of this year he was putting together his tenure file and we didn't meet for like 6 weeks straight because of the period of time; but I didn't mind, because I am very independent and prefer to work alone anyway.  But if you care about that, that may affect your choice.

 

2. You will, at least in the beginning while he is establishing the lab, have less support.  Mentors who are flush with money may be able to buy their students new computers and software and equipment; in the beginning with my advisor, there was no money for that.  There may be less funding to send you to conferences from the grant (we didn't start getting that until maybe my third or fourth year).  I do human subjects research, and in the beginning we couldn't pay recruitment coordinators or recruiters, so we grad students had to hit the pavement ourselves and do some recruiting to get participants.  He scheduled all his own meetings, which meant some snafus and double-bookings, lol.  How important these things are will also depend on departmental support; my primary department/school runs on grants so if your advisor doesn't have it, you don't have it. But my secondary department/school (yes, the departments are in two different schools; it is very annoying) is a little more egalitarian, which means that even grad students whose advisors aren't rolling in dough yet can still get support for getting office space, equipment, lab time, etc.

 

3. A PLUS is that your advisor remembers what it is like to be a grad student.  Sometimes (but not always) that means a more humane advisor.  None of this demanding 80 hour work weeks or wondering why kids these days aren't satisfied with ramen noodles and a cardboard box.  My primary advisor is very sympathetic to financial and time-based issues, and encourages me to take breaks and recharge.  However, this is also a very personality- and departmental-based thing.  My secondary department (and to a certain extent the primary one too) values good quality of life and happy graduate students, so I don't know too many people working 80 hour weeks and lots of us have spouses and children and intensive hobbies (lots of runners, a couple triathletes, someone in a band, a NYT bestselling author) while still graduating in 5-6 years.  Also, some assistant professors are either workaholics by nature or feel forced to become a workaholic to get tenure, so this is going to vary.

 

4. More established professors have better connections.  My primary mentor is a great guy, and over the last 6 years he of course knows more people.  But when I arrived he was pretty new and didn't know as many.  My secondary mentor, on the other hand, is a senior and well-known person in the field - I mention his name at conferences and people immediately know who he is and what kind of research I do.  His connections helped me get a postdoc.  His name will look good on my recommendations.

 

A lot of people warn graduate students to completely avoid untenured assistant professors as mentors.  I don't, but I do advise caution.  Remember that this new person is brand new to your department, your university, and to their role as a professor; they are going to be under a tremendous amount of stress, preparing new classes, learning the expectations of their position, and forging new connections among faculty.  Mentoring a new grad student will not be the forefront of their mind.

 

They will also be brand new to mentoring.  Some people have a knack for it and will go the extra mile from day one, and some assistant professors may have had mentoring roles in grad school or in their postdoc and be better at it than some senior faculty.  But others may have never really cared about mentoring in graduate school, and the majority will not have pursued any mentoring experiences in grad school because it's not rewarded to do so, so you are essentially a guinea pig - they are learning on you.  Personally I don't mind being a guinea pig (and like I said, my mentor is fantastic anyway).

 

IMO it takes a particularly level-headed, well-put-together, confident brand new assistant professor to be a good mentor in his first year.  Even in my case, my advisor had had two years to get comfortable before he arrived, so he wasn't BRAND new.

 

Two other pieces of advice:

 

1) If you do decide to do this, make sure that you identify another senior, tenured professor who can serve as an informal (or formal) advisor to you.  At a bare minimum, some administrative things like chairing your committee may only be open to tenured faculty.  But at a more practical level, you need someone who knows the ropes to help guide you.  I got extremely lucky in that my senior mentor was actually on my junior mentor's dissertation committee and they do similar research, so they actually work together well!

 

2) You don't have to discuss this with your advisor (we never did) but in your own private mind, decide what you will do in the event that your untenured mentor has to leave, for whatever reason, before you finish.  In theory, yes, you have six years (or more) until they go up for tenure.  In practice, there are a lot of things that can happen.  They could fail third-year review.  They could decide an RU/VH is not ideal for them and move after the second year.  They could displease the powers that be and get pushed out.  They could see that tenure is not on the horizon for them and move on before the university has a chance to deny them.  (Several assistant professors in my department did this.  In fact, I can off the top of my head immediately think of three that I know of who left within their first 5ish years in the department.)

 

This is ESPECIALLY a hazard if you are going to an Ivy League or other prestigious university, where new assistant professors tend to see their positions as "a good place to start my career" or "http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2013/07/21/the-awesomest-7-year-postdoc-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-tenure-track-faculty-life/'>a seven-year postdoc"* because hardly anyone gets tenure there unless they were tenured somewhere else first (seriously, my university doesn't tenure something like 80-90% of its new hires).

 

Also, as was pointed out, YOU may take longer than 6 years to finish.

 

I chose my department precisely because I knew that even if my advisor were not tenured, I had my secondary advisor BUT there were also other professors in the department doing very interesting research whose lab I could join.  I also (privately) decided to stay in my department if my advisor ended up leaving for somewhere else, mostly because my department was so highly ranked in my field and there were so many other prominent people in my subfield here, except in the unlikely case that my advisor ended up moving somewhere even better.  And even then I said after I finished comps I was staying put, because F retaking classes/exams.

 

*Ironically, she got tenure, and is still at Harvard.  But Google "seven year postdoc" and you'll see she's not the only one who wrote about this.

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3. A PLUS is that your advisor remembers what it is like to be a grad student.  Sometimes (but not always) that means a more humane advisor.  None of this demanding 80 hour work weeks or wondering why kids these days aren't satisfied with ramen noodles and a cardboard box. 

 

 

All good advice...

You qualified the statement above, but in my program I'd say by and large the students working 70+ hours a week are only working for new advisors. The older ones have more reasonable expectations. Just my program though.

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  • 2 weeks later...

This is all great advice. Being in a similar situation I can offer some other insight as well...

 

I think even though I see myself maybe working a lot harder than other grad students in more established labs. I've definitely learned a lot more than others I've seen in my year or even some who are more advanced than me. This is because I have a lot of sole responsibility for upkeep of the lab and conducting research. Consequently it's put me in a frame of mind to get a lot of projects started and build collaborations early, similar to the goals my new PI. Sure maybe you may not have as much work to do if you're in an established lab but the flip side you might not realize is that you don't have as much opportunity for responsibility and ownership over things because an established lab may be running itself a lot easier. I don't mind the pressure, because I have ambitious goals and I like that it's forced me to get a lot done very early in my grad career. I know grad students who are in higher year level than me who are way less experienced or have less progress in their research program just because there is not this pressure and expectation to keep things running. 

 

So some may see this as a negative, but for me it was a positive. That said, my advisor also is a really good fit for my personality and I don't feel a pressure from them to do things I don't want. Even if there are things I may not want to do, I want to because I get along with my advisor so well and it's a give and take relationship, so I don't feel overworked. Just thought I'd put that perspective out there! Granted I know established labs also have amazing PIs with a lot of opportunity to work in a maybe more stable environment, so I'm sure that's also a great setting to accomplish ambitious goals as well. 

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