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Risks of working under untenured profs


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I wanted to seek some advice on choosing professors for the PhD program. The university I plan on attending has a relatively new department but is growing quickly, and therefor has a lot of young professors. In particular, the majority of the professors whose research I am interested in are not tenured (associate or assistant), so I was wondering what kind of risks I should be aware of, and if I should instead look for other options. From the graduate students in their labs, they all had only good things to say about them as being good mentors and eager to help, but it still seems a bit risky choosing them over tenured professors that are more established and are more known in the field. Any thoughts/advice would be greatly appreciated!

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I worked under an untenured assistant professor for my PhD program. He received tenure the same year that I finished. I was his first PhD student (he had another doctoral student in a similar, but different program, who entered the same year as me and finished a year before me).


Note: Associate professors are usually tenured, or very very close to it.




1) Of course, the biggest is the risk that they will not receive tenure and need to leave during your PhD. The counterpoint, though, is that there is always a nonzero chance that your advisor (tenured or not) will leave while you are finishing. Tenured professors get poached by other universities, or lose their grant funding, or decide to move for family reasons or because they want to move into administration. More on how to deal with this below.


2) Newer/less advanced professors are (on average) less connected in the field, and thus their networks are smaller and less likely to bring advantage to you when looking for postdocs and jobs. There are exceptions to this too, though - there are lots of advanced/tenured professors who are not famous and don't network well; conversely, there are some junior people in my field who are very well known and recognized amongst their peers, and others who did the networking thing well in grad school and their postdoc. There are ways to mitigate this, too.


3) Untenured people are, by definition, trying to get tenure. Getting tenure is time-consuming - you have to publish like mad and bring in grant money, and at top/elite institutions you also have to build a reputation as an (inter)nationally known scholar in your field who can successfully solicit supportive letters from people you don't know. That involves lots of conference travel and speaking at other universities so that you can build that kind of reputation. The result for a grad student is that your untenured advisor may be gone a lot and at least a little distracted, particularly around the time of third-year review and around the time they go up for tenure.


4) A more minor/smaller risk is that newer professors on average have less experience mentoring graduate/doctoral students than established professors, and so they are learning how to mentor you at the same time that you are trying to get through grad school. That means that there may be some missteps, and that your newish professor might not yet know how to shepherd you through difficult phases of the program or help you connect to get post-grad school stuff. Of course, some people simply have a knack for mentoring and others learn very quickly, so this isn't necessarily absolutely going to be a problem, just something that could potentially be one.


5) They might have less money because they have fewer grants, which means less money for you to buy equipment and software and travel. It also may mean that they have fewer people in their lab yet because they haven't yet fully established it, so you might have to do some 'grunt' work you wouldn't do with a more senior person. Case in point: early in my advisor's lab there were few admin people, so I and the other doctoral student had to assist in recruiting participants for our studies. Now my advisor has a machine with a community outreach coordinator and a bunch of master's students, so towards the end of my program I only went to recruitment events if I wanted to - the data just rolled in without my involvement, and I could focus on data cleaning and analysis and writing. BUT, I could see how being his doctoral student right now would be even better. He has tons of data, and a sufficiently motivated new doctoral student of his could start working on papers right away - no need to wait for more data.


Fixes (in my own experience):


The best fix, IMO, is to have a more senior person serve as a secondary mentor/advisor, whether formally or informally. This solves problems #1-4 above: you have a more senior, tenured person who can potentially mentor you if your untenured primary advisor has to leave during your program; the senior person is likely to be better connected in the field and can use his network to your advantage; tenured senior professors sometimes (but not always) have more time since they are working at a less frenetic pace, meaning more time to spend cultivating you; and more senior people will have graduated several if not dozens of doctoral students and will have learned best practices for it.


This is what I did. I had a primary untenured advisor whose research interests matched my own, who I worked with most closely, and who served as my primary dissertation sponsor. But my secondary advisor was a full professor in another department (my secondary department - I attended an interdisciplinary program) who also has research interests aligned with mine, and is a well-known figure in my field and related ones (people know his name when I mention him at big conferences). The funny story is that Tenured Senior Mentor was on Untenured Primary Advisor's dissertation committee back in the day :D Both served different functions with me and all three of us authored a paper together.


Other notes:


1) Think ahead to what you might do if your advisor has to leave at different points of the program. Make a plan. I was at a university and a department I loved, and that was top 10 in my field, but one that is also notorious for not tenuring its junior people (people tend to view this as a great place to start a career). I decided that if my advisor left, I would most likely stay where I was; if he left before year 4 I would find someone else to mentor me and if he left after year 4 I would work with him remotely from where he was. The corollary is that you have to cultivate relationships with other (tenured) people who might be your advisor/sponsor for your dissertation should your main advisor have to leave. There was another tenured person in my primary department who I had in mind as a potential dissertation sponsor should my main advisor have left, and other people who did similar work who I could potentially turn to. And then, of course, my Tenured Senior Mentor (TSM) in my secondary department was there and had an established long-term relationship with me.


2) Some young professors don't have this problem. If they are an elite/top institution, likely they are traveling all over the universe trying to establish their reputation, so they know some people. Having a TSM as a secondary advisor is a good fix for this because you can use his network. The other fix is to do the networking you need yourself. Honestly, I kind of did that, too - I found my postdoc by attending a summer training and reaching back out to the director a few years later when I was looking for postdocs. I'm also a pretty outgoing person, so I stalk find people at conferences and talk to them if I admire their work or want to do what they do, and I applied for every early career/training/networking/career building thing EVER at conferences. I was joking with a friend earlier that I have an uncanny knack for always sitting next to program officers in scientific sessions.


3) There are two fixes. First of all, you must meet with the advisor before agreeing to attend and gauge their level of commitment, poise, organization, and time management skills. My advisor was a well-organized and committed mentor who always made time to meet with me, occasionally on short notice, even when he was really busy. We met biweekly when I was in grad school, and occasionally more often (when I was preparing for my defense, for example). Second of all, you have to be okay with the knowledge that you will need to be a little more independent and self-directed than perhaps if you had a tenured advisor. I was okay with that.


However, keep in mind that tenured professors don't always have more time. Some associate professors are gunning for promotion to full, or trying to move into administrative positions. Others have acquired grant portfolios so large that they have to keep up the pace to manage the grants and publish from them. And some just love to keep up with the academic hobnobbing. One of my friends has a famous senior tenured professor who is literally gone doing fieldwork 4 months out of every year (luckily they do fieldwork in the same country). My advisor just got tenure and I can't say he's less busy than he was before, although he probably feels more settled.


4) Same as above, really - the major fix for this is to realize that you will need to be more self-reliant. To me that was a good thing, as I largely wanted to be left alone to do great research and come to my advisor when I had problems or needed guidance. If you function like that, I think you'll be fine. The bonus is that I learned how to learn a LOT of stuff on my own, so I feel even more independent and self-reliant now (although the cost was definitely a bit of floundering in the middle of my program). If you need more hand-holding, then a tenured professor with more time might be a better choice. The other thing is the same as above, which is interviewing your potential mentor ahead of time and asking specific questions about their mentoring style, how they view the mentoring relationship, and what they want to get out of it - as well as what they want to impart to you. You want to find a mentor whose style matches your regardless of their tenure status, but what you're looking for are junior folks who have at least thought about the way they want to mentor and have ideas that sound like they make sense.


5) One fix for this is collaborations - if your advisor needs time to ramp up and has no data yet, you can collaborate with other people in the department who do and want someone to analyze it or write it up. One of the things I've learned is that as professors get more senior, they get more data than they know what to do with and are always looking for a good grad student or postdoc to analyze it and/or write it up into a paper. Plus, collaborations help you grow your network, so they're a net good. Another thing is that when you do more 'grunt work' you actually learn more about the research process and get a feel for what's necessary - for example, I now realize how important the structure and function online survey tool is for web-based research because ours absolutely sucked and it impacted the data that we got. Being involved in the data cleaning meant that I got really close to the data and am very familiar with it when I do analyses.


One potential BONUS for having an untenured assistant professor is that they are hungry for tenure, and - if they are doing what they are supposed to be doing - they will be publishing a lot of papers and going after grants. This can lead to you also publishing lots of papers and learning the mechanics of grantwriting. But you have to be proactive and ask about these things. I was young and unaware when I began my program, but one of the things I do wish I had done more was been proactive about asking my advisor what he was working on and asking if I could jump in on a paper to help (and get authorship). I think he's the more retiring type who felt like he didn't want to overwhelm me by asking me to help on papers, but I really WANTED to and just thought he would let me know when he had something interesting. This led to some missed opportunities. So be a go-getter and ask, ask, ask.

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wow, thanks for such a comprehensive and detailed advice on what to expect. Will definitely take your advice and look into secondary mentors/advisors thst are more established. Also, the lab i am looking at has a few grad students and 0 post-docs.. which is a dynamic i am not familiar with because i solely worked under a postdoc and learned a lot from him during undergrad. I think I will end up just asking around a lot like you said and probably look for possible collaborations. Thanks for the info!!

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In addition to the great points raised by juilletmercredi, I just want to point out a few additional "pros" or bonuses to working with untenured professors. I am in my third year and when I started, my advisor was here for 2 years. Ideally, my graduation and my advisor's tenure will happen in about 2 years. 


Here are some other bonuses/pros that you didn't mention in your original post (I know you are asking about risks specifically but it's good to know the rewards too when considering risk vs reward!):


1. New professors have a TON of ideas. They likely have been keeping a backlog of "wishlist" projects they have been dreaming up since the end of grad school and maybe now is the first time they have the resources (time, people-power, equipment etc) to actually carry them out. You'll get a lot of interesting and potentially innovative projects/opportunities!


2. In my non-lab field, new professors have a ton of startup grant money. If your professor is wise, they would have pushed really hard to negotiate for a comparable startup grant that people that start labs. However, without all the expensive lab equipment and reagents etc to buy, they can spend that money on you! This means more travel opportunities and equipment like computers etc. So far, although I've only made reasonable requests, everything I've asked for has been granted (new iMac, international conference, etc.)


3. New professors might be able to better connect with their students since grad school wasn't so far away. I also recently had a career talk with my advisor and we talked about potential non-academic positions as well. My advisor still keeps in touch with all their friends from grad school who left academia and offered to help me network/contact them should I choose to go that route. I think for older advisors, the longer you stay in academia, the weaker your non-academic network becomes (in exchange for strengthening your academic network of course).


4. Younger professors also went on the job market in the last few years and understand what the current market is like. Older professors were looking for jobs in a fairly different era, so their advice may be a little dated.

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@TakeruK It's really reassuring to hear the pros from someone who've gone through the process. As you said with #1, when I visited the professors, the younger. untenured professors seemed way more passionate and excited about the new potential projects ideas they have for me, and it's part of why i was more drawn to them over the more senior tenured professors. Hopefully the pros will help me pull through!

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All of what TakeruK says is true but #3 and #4 were RealTalk for my experience. I have first cousins who are older than my graduate advisor, lol. We had a more personal/friendly connection that has persisted after I've graduated - we still collaborate on projects together, and I can talk to him from a place of comfort and collegiality. My more senior mentor, though excellent, got his PhD before I was born and I don't think we'll ever shake the Obi-Wan/Luke dynamic. Recently Formerly Junior Mentor has also been dishing out some really timely job market advice.

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