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brilliant adviser vs. attentive adviser


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Hi folks,

 

I'm a few years in to my PhD, and I have the choice of moving with my adviser, let's call him Adviser A, to a new, slightly more prestigious institution, or staying in my department and working with a new adviser, let's say Adviser B.

 

Adviser A is a legend in the field, and eerily smart. He is quick to get to the bottom of problems I'm having, and catches mistakes I'd never notice. He literally wrote the textbook for what I study. However, he's not very focused on advising. He replies very selectively to emails, and is often traveling. This past year he's been visiting a different institution out of the country, and we've spoken maybe once a month, except for the few weeks that I visited him. He is famous for his aloofness.

 

Adviser B, on the other hand, is young, and just got tenure; he's plenty bright, but doesn't quite have the impressive skills of Adviser A.  I've been working with him for the past few months, and he's been super available, meeting with me weekly, which is a big change, and I think has made me more productive and happy. Although he doesn't have much background in my field, he helped me a bit with some of my research so far, and has expressed interest in learning about my area through my research. He also has had a lot of good advice for the general process of being an academic.

 

The one slight wrinkle is that although my department has plenty of bright people in my general area, the department Adviser A is moving to has a few people who are experts in my specific area. If I stayed, I could still visit them/Adviser A from time to them.

 

What is more important to you, oh people of the Grad Cafe, being around people who know a lot about what you're working on, but having to be very self-motivated and self-disciplined, or having an adviser who will be hands on and work with you,?

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For myself, I am very self-motivated and self-disciplined. I'd prefer to have someone I can bounce ideas off of, so I can create more dynamic and forward moving research. I already have my own passions and direction, so I would work well under someone who gives me that balance, and some insight. Having a hands-on advisor can sometimes feel stifling, as I feel that they're actually trying to push their agenda onto me. 

 

However, not everyone works well that way. Where are you in your professional development? Do you feel that the hands-on involvement is helping you narrow and push you to really explore your research? You're essentially teaching your advisor, which in and of itself could be beneficial. It's not really about what works for me, but what you need and where you are going. 

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Mind the letters of recommendation as well.  What do you want to do after your finish your PhD?  If you want to stay in academia, you might be best off going with Adviser A as the name does matter.

 

But also consider your own working style.  I know if my own "hands-on" adviser left, I'd likely fall apart...

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I had a similar situation, but my Advisor A is not so hands-off. He is pretty attentive when you need him and is open to weekly meetings, but I think he prefers every other week. Advisor B is weekly, and basically any time crisis hits. I was lucky enough to be offered coadvising with both of them. Advisor B wrote the proposal and got the funding for the project, Advisor A is mainly to serve as expertise in the modeling aspect.

 

Unfortnately, this semester, Advisor B out for a family emergency. The first week without him was kind of a whirlwind and I wasn't sure how the project would continue without his guidance. Admittedly, I've just been floating along this year and have made insignificant progress (in my opinion). I think it has really put things in perspective for me, though--sort of a kick in the pants that I really need to take the lead and push this project forward. I feel like in the past couple of weeks, things have fallen in place for me and I'm stepping up to the challenge, despite my "lead" and more hands-on advisor not being around for me. Advisor A has been great about everything, though, and has seemed more than willing to meet weekly.

 

Same thing happened in undergrad. My first research project was prefaced with, "I'm going to be gone for 6 weeks this summer, so you're on your own." That advisor was really hands-on and is still one of my greatest friends to this day. That worked out fine, so while it really like having a hands-on and available advisor to be there for professional/personal advice, I really need to be left to my own devices to get myself motivated after some basic start-up.

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If you were just starting, I think this would be different. Personally I'd much prefer an Advisor B over an Advisor A so if the question were about spending 5 years in a program basically left alone or working with someone who supports me and I enjoy talking to, the answer would be easy: I'd value the advising relationship that made me feel better more than people's fame. However, you're already a few years in and have a project and a relationship going with Advisor A. At this point, I think it's different. Towards the end of your PhD you should begin to be independent, even if you have a very hands on advisor. Moreover, you need to really think about your next career step and who will help you make it. Advisor A will probably be able to open more doors for you. Given this, at this point I'd probably stick with Advisor A.

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Having an adviser who will be hands on and work with you! For me that's more important, anyway. Maybe it would be possible to stay at current institution and have B as your primary advisor, but still rely on A when you needed an answer to a very specific question that only he would know? Or for A to still write letters for you, etc? That way, you could have all the benefits that come along with being connected to a superstar adviser, yet have the practical benefits of someone who will be hands-on with you by switching to B. 

 

Don't underestimate the importance of being "more productive and happy," as you said in your post. Speaking from experience, having a hands-on (additional) advisor after having a hands-off one can really make a huge difference regarding your productivity and overall mental and emotional well being.

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