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Thoughts on assistant professors?


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So far, I've been admitted to several programs that are very closely matched in funding and ranking. The main difference between them is that my potential advisors are at very different stages of their career—in particular, the PI that I would be working with at my top-choice school is also starting in the fall.

 

This is both really exciting and really scary for me. The professors at all of my other choices are already well established. But I think that this professor is the best research fit. When I visited the school, I felt so at home talking to her and the rest of the department, and I got the feeling that I really wanted to spend the next few years working and talking and commiserating with them...

 

Anyway, is anyone here advised by an assistant professor? Are you able to get across to them what you want out of an advisor? Do you still have some autonomy, even though they're more invested in your research? Do you have to divert time from research towards the administrative tasks of setting up the lab? Are there any things that have or have not worked in building a relationship with your advisor? (So many questions!)

 

I know that these are all questions that I should ask this PI directly. But I'm planning to meet with her soon to talk about it, and I'd really like some pointers about what I should consider before that conversation.  ^_^ 

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My top choice is a research done by an assistant professor. He is amazing and has lots of grants so I don't see that being a problem.

Assistant professors are in the beginning of their carrers so they might have extra spunk, which means more work for you. But since your research interests match... Go for it

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Anyway, is anyone here advised by an assistant professor?

 

Me!  My adviser was beginning his third year on the tenure track as I began my first year in the program.  He is up for tenure this year (and has been promoted to associate professor) as I finish up.  For context, I am in a lab-based social science; when I arrived, there was me, one other doctoral student, and one project coordinator, and maybe one or two RAs.  That was basically the lab.  And he had one large grant.  In the past 6 years he has acquired about 3-4 more large grants, has multiple projects and we now have quite a staff in the lab.  He's been very successful!

 

Are you able to get across to them what you want out of an advisor?

 

My adviser has been phenomenal, in a word. I visited the April before I attended and we really clicked.  We have similar working styles - and he's very busy and I am very independent, so it worked well.  He doesn't need to micromanage me, and I get my work done without a lot of oversight or nitpicking on his part.  He clearly cares about my progress, and has been able to balance being constructive and giving good feedback (sometimes negative if necessary) on my work.  It also helps that I am not afraid to ask for what I need, and came into the program with clearly delineated goals.  I think when you have a busy junior professor, being forward and organized helps a lot.  He also cares about me as a human being, and make sure that I have a good work-life balance.  We've published three papers together and are working on another two.  I'm first author on two of them.

 

FWIW, I also have a secondary adviser in my secondary department.  He is a tenured full professor who is well-known in my field.

 

Do you still have some autonomy, even though they're more invested in your research?

 

Definitely.  I have a lot of autonomy.  My adviser has some major projects and data sets; he of course has his own projects/papers/specific aims that he wanted to write on when he got the data.  But he's been very very open to me basically picking whatever I want to do out of his data sets and doing that.  He doesn't tell me what to work on; he gives me suggestions, and I take those in different directions.  This is going to be very dependent on your professor's personality and level of neuroticism, though.  I think my adviser trusted me to identify important projects and saw a willingness in me to take charge/the lead on projects he also thought were important, and we have very similar interests, so he didn't feel the need to assign me work.  That's also not his style (nor is it mine, because I have explicitly told him I wasn't interested in certain things).  Other PIs may have that style where they want to assign or push you into things and you have to work within that framework.

 

Do you have to divert time from research towards the administrative tasks of setting up the lab?

 

In the beginning, I did spend some time on admin stuff because there wasn't anyone around to do it.  Admin in our lab was a lot of participant work, so recruiting and screening participants for studies, conducting interviews, data management from the web diaries we collected, etc.  I don't have to do most of that now because he's hired other folks to do it (although I still am the primary data management person on one of our projects; I enjoy data management, actually).  I wouldn't call it a diversion, though, because it's an integral part of getting the research done AND it's always a good idea to get involved in the collection of the data.  You get closer to the data that way.  That's the reason I always volunteer to do data management, because through cleaning and organizing the data I get very very close to it.  I never did paperwork or anything like that; we had a project coordinator who was responsible for IRB submissions and filing consent forms and things of that nature.

 

Are there any things that have or have not worked in building a relationship with your advisor?

 

Being organized and goal-directed helps.  Especially in the beginning I came to my adviser at the beginning of every semester with a list of academic and professional goals, plus my class listing already picked out (using the student handbook for guidance) and we would go over them and talk about how to achieve them.  At the end of the semester we reviewed.  I also prepared an agenda for each of our meetings; even if I didn't send it to him in advance (which I usually did not) I had a list of things to tick off and talk about.  As I went along in the program more, he looked to me more and more to direct our meetings to what I needed from him.  You're expected to become more independent over time, and I think having a junior professor advise you sometimes helps with that.

 

Be aware that especially around their third or fourth year - and especially at a nationally-known RU/VH institution - junior faculty start traveling extensively to establish a national reputation, which they will need for tenure.  They have to give talks in far-flung areas and get known by senior people in the field who can write letters for them.  That may mean getting on their calendar earlier, or making do with less frequent meetings.  I meet with my adviser biweekly but I know some people who meet with theirs like once a month.  In year 6-ish they will also be preoccupied with putting together their tenure dossier.  My adviser's tenure cycle wasn't the normal 6 year one, for whatever reason, so his tenure dossier compilation actually coincided with my early days of dissertation writing, and he was less available.  That was fine for me; I just put my head down and wrote, and by the time he was ready to meet again I had a chapter and a half waiting for him, lol.

 

You also need to think about what you might do if your adviser has to leave, especially if you will be entering in their third-ish year.  At most places the tenure clock is 6 years; if they get denied they get a terminal year (7th) to find another position.  If your adviser has been in the department for 3 years already when you start, he'll be beginning the 4th year in your first, and will be going up for tenure in your third, which is likely when you are taking exams and planning for your dissertation proposal.  If he gets denied, then he will be searching for another job when you are beginning your proposal process/finishing up exams and planning the diss, and that's a really crucial period for doctoral students.  It's also a sucky period for them to leave wrt to you. If you transfer with him, you may have to retake exams or even coursework at his new department unless he has the clout to negotiate for that not to happen (probably not).  If you stay, then you're just beginning the dissertation, so a lot of professors won't be willing to basically be a proxy sponsor for you (you know, serve as your "sponsor" while really your old adviser is your main diss adviser) so you may have to change tracks.  Privately, I thought about what I might do should my adviser leave the university.  (This is one of the reasons I chose to do a secondary data analysis for my dissertation.)

 

My advice, too, is to "adopt" a Trusted Senior Mentor/tenured senior faculty member who can serve as either a formal or informal adviser.  Junior faculty can be truly excellent mentors, but by definition they are less connected and have less clout within their departments and within your field.  On the other hand, a well-known senior adviser can pull some tremendous strings for you, and open some doors.  I have had experiences like that myself with my quite well-known senior mentor.  Working with one also puts you in a new and positive light, as I have seen people's reactions to me when I tell them who I work with here.  Senior faculty also generally have more time, assuming they aren't overburdened with administrative assignments.  (The flip side, though, is that very senior faculty - especially the ones with the cloud and the admin assignments - aren't necessarily as productive as the young faculty.  Some are, some aren't, it really just depends.)

 

So the tl;dr version is don't avoid a junior/untenured faculty member, but realize that there are some concerns to think about when choosing to work with one and consider the possibility of adopting a senior faculty member as an informal mentor.

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Juliletmercredi did a very nice write up on what to look for so not sure can add a lot but my PI is very new faculty it is both our second year. It has been a lot of fun getting to be here to help start up everything and has taught me a lot about being independent and how to start things from the beginning. Another perk is that my PI is pretty much the hardest worker in the department he has a ton to prove and wants to so spends a ton of time working. Since we are both starting out he is very easy to access and I get to talk to him daily.    So those are a few of the perks I think are great about having a newer PI.    

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  • 2 weeks later...

Julietmercredi nailed it. I am advised by a somewhat new PI, she was tenured in early 2012 but still very fresh in terms of advising students (I'm only her second student). One thing I want to add is that when it comes to applying for internal and external fellowships, your PI's track record also plays a role. Sometimes it could hurt you more than helping.

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I'm in a similar situation with a professor starting when I start (also in psych!) at my top choice, and in some ways it makes me almost more excited. Thanks so much for asking this and the responses given! I think it's very exciting, because we'll both have a lot to prove, and really want to work hard and do great things. I'm also a little idealistic today.

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But I'm planning to meet with her soon to talk about it, and I'd really like some pointers about what I should consider before that conversation.  ^_^ 

My soon-to-be PI is an assistant prof. I was hesitant because of that fact, but he's got good funding, a ton of energy (I like this a lot, personally), he's got a solid (and frequent) publication record, and when I asked him about where he wanted to take his lab and what sort of research he had in the pipeline, I was happy with the answer.

 

I asked several of my current and past professors about the idea of signing on with an AP and almost all of them said the same thing: essentially, to be careful, but to not write off the match just based on that.

 

There are finer issues of fit that I was also happy with, but I didn't encounter those until the interview weekend and the emails that came after: his level of comfort with me running multiple projects at once (since the work we'll do doesn't require a lot of daily time so much as calendar time, and lbr, I like to cover my bases), his willingness to answer questions and be there if I need him, his willingness and ability to give guidance on where I should direct my efforts academically (since there are areas I could touch up on), etc. To me, the fit in these areas solidified my confidence in the match, so I felt good about it!

 

So, imo, look at current funding AND the funding outlook over the course of your expected stay. Look at advising style vs. your needs (do you like someone more hands-off or hands-on? Would you rather see them every day or once a month to check in?). Et cetera.

 

Also, everything juilletmercredi said.

Edited by unbrokenthread
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Julietmercredi nailed it. I am advised by a somewhat new PI, she was tenured in early 2012 but still very fresh in terms of advising students (I'm only her second student). One thing I want to add is that when it comes to applying for internal and external fellowships, your PI's track record also plays a role. Sometimes it could hurt you more than helping.

 

I had the same issue when I was applying for fellowships last year. The easiest thing to do is include a secondary adviser with more experience on your applications. It requires very little extra work on your part and a quick email on your adviser's part. I find that newer faculty are more motivated and are friendlier since they were in your position not so long ago. Just make sure you hitch your wagon to the strongest horse and you'll go a long way.

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