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Advised by an assistant professor?

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I wanted to hear about your experiences being advised by an assistant professor as I'm considering my options. I really hit it off well with an assistant professor at one of the institutes I've been admitted to and, based on our conversation, his advising philosophy aligns quite well with how I would like to be advised/mentored. He is also one of a few professors that has projects aligning with my research interstes. My main concern is that since he is not yet tenured, he could potentially move on to another institution after some time of working with him. 


In your opinion, is it advisable to go with an assistant professor for your advisor if you match well with them? Should I aim to look for a tenured professor even if their research may not align so well?


Would it be appropriate to ask your potential advisor about their likelihood of becoming tenured while deciding where to attend?


If you have been advised by an assistant professor, what is/was your experience (assuming this is someone you work well with)? 


If your advisor moved on to another university/career path after some time, what was your decision in that situation? how did you make that decision?



Greatly appreciate you sharing your experiences, thanks!

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In my field, it's pretty common to be advised by assistant professors. After all, graduating students is one of the things that help you earn tenure. There are differences between working for an advisor who is young and untenured vs. a middle career tenured prof vs. a full professor closer to the end of their career. And there will be differences from person to person too. So, I think what works for you should really depend on fit and who you click with the best. I've worked with all three "types" and my PhD will be supervised by an assistant professor.


It is a valid/important concern that your advisor won't get tenure and be forced to leave. But even tenured professors might choose to leave for one reason or another (one example I know about is a prof who left because her spouse did not get tenure so they moved to a place where both of them could get tenure). 


You might want to ask around to find out how often people are denied tenure in your program. My department head was very honest with us when we (some current students) asked. He said that they hire people with the expectation of granting them tenure and no one in the last 20 years have been denied tenure. In another related department, one professor did leave and his students had the choice of changing supervisors or moving with him (but still receive a degree from their original school). What actually happens in each case will depend on the negotiations the prof has made with their old and new institutions though. 


In my opinion, while there is a small risk involved with working for an assistant professor, I don't think it is significant enough to sacrifice a good personality/research fit. There is also risk that an older tenured professor will retire (perhaps unexpectedly) too. And it doesn't make sense for students to only seek to work for middle-career faculty. I think that every student (no matter who their advisor is) should go to a program with multiple faculty members that are a good fit and to keep their options open! If possible, it might be a good idea to work on side projects as well that might take over as your main project if necessary (and if not necessary, extra papers are always good).

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Here are some previous discussions of this question. There are more that you can find using the search, but these threads will give you a good overview of people's thoughts on this issue. Opinions vary, but in my opinion what matters most is the personal fit between you and the advisor. There is some risk involved in working with an untenured advisor, but it's perhaps useful to keep in mind that tenured professors might get another job and leave, go into administration and become less accessible as advisors, become ill, retire, etc. There are pros and cons both ways. The best way to do it, I think, is to have it both ways -- work with the young professor who is eager to publish and is more in tune with the students, and also have a more established mentor who can advise you in places where the less experienced professor may have difficulties, and whose connections you can use for networking and career advancement. 


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Just to add to what TakeruK said, my MA advisor was not tenured when I started there but is now. She's still there. My PhD advisor was a full prof when I started working with him and left a year and a half ago for another job. So, having tenure does not guarantee that someone won't move. It also doesn't guarantee that they'll have more time to work with you. My MA advisor had fewer students and thus more time for me.

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I am a social science PhD student who has been advised by an assistant professor.  He was in his third year when I began and is up for tenure this year.  It has been a phenomenal relationship for me.  He's an excellent mentor; he cares about me and makes time for me; our personalities are a great match and his advising style meshes really well with the way I work (I'm extremely independent and he does not micromanage me - indeed, he doesn't have the time to micromanage me).  Moreover, he's been well-funded in the past few years since he has to get grants in order to get tenure, so he always has money for equipment here or a trip there.  Plus he's hungry, you know?  He needs publications and grants to get tenure, so there's always work to be done and data to be analyzed.

Here are my tips:

-Try to see if you can figure out when your assistant professor arrived at your department and at what point you will be in your program should he get denied tenure.  For example, assuming a 6-year clock I figured out that my adviser would be beginning his third year when I began my first year, and thus if he got denied tenure he would have to leave following my fifth year (assuming a terminal year).  That's not actually the way it worked out at all - I don't know whether he got his clock delayed or whether this university just has an abnormally long cloock - but given what I knew about academia it wasn't a bad estimate.  I figured him leaving after my fifth year wasn't so bad, because I would be either done or so close to done that it wouldn't matter where he was.

-If an assistant professor is the best person to advise you, choose a department in which there are tenured professors who could also advise you in the event that your assistant professor leaves.  Likely, if you are far enough along your assistant professor can still advise you from wherever he goes, but you will need someone to formally serve as your dissertation sponsor.

-Adopt a tenured/senior professor who can be your secondary or informal mentor.  I am lucky in that my hybrid PhD program actually has that as a formal setup, so my secondary mentor is an esteemed senior full professor in my secondary department.  Full professors/senior people can offer you things (connections, networking, clout) that junior people cannot.  Example 1: I overslept through a take-home exam once and a word from my adviser to the professor teaching the class fixed that problem.  (He laughed and said it wasn't a big deal.) Example 2: A word from my full professor adviser turned a long fight with financial aid into a non-issue.  Example 3: I visited a postdoc that my Full Professor just happens to teach summer classes at...and was offered it without formally applying.  See?

But, on the other hand, Full Professor does not always have data to be analyzed or extra grant money lying around for equipment or trips.  Full Professor also served as chair for a while during my time here and was in a different administrative position before that, and had copious sabbaticals, so Full Professor was a bit distracted (although still completely excellent).


I definitely agree, though, that sometimes tenured professors have more time for you.  While I can always meet with Junior Professor adviser when I need to, I have to get myself on his calendar a week ahead of time at least (and 2 weeks is best).  JPs in their mid-tenure-track years (years 3 to 5) tend to be particularly unavailable because they are off trying to establish a national reputation so that people outside the university can say good things about them.  Full Professor is generally around, in town (when not on sabbatical, lol) and held open a weekly slot for me to wander in if I needed it, and I could generally ask him for a meeting the day before if necessary.

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FemaleScienceProfessor had a blog entry on this topic. Here it is: http://science-professor.blogspot.com/2009/11/first-foremost.html.


From reading the comments, the experience can vary quiet a lot, mostly due to the personality and style of the young professor. Resources available at each department (such as mentoring support coming from outside of the advisor-advisee relationship) also can make a difference. 

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