Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Do Young or Old Professors Make the Best Advisers?

Most of you have probably heard the debate about whether younger or older faculty make better PhD advisers. In case you haven't, here is the Reader's Digest version. I must add the disclaimer that these points are generalizations. Individual results may (and do) vary - in fact I would say that while these generalizations are true when you average over many advisers, the error bars are quite large.

Older professors tend to have established research programs, which means that they are more than likely well connected in their sub-field. They generally have some niche of their research that would make an ideal thesis problem due to its specificity and the fact that your adviser has probably already thought a lot about the issue. Older advisers tend to be tenured and are therefore secure in their positions, which helps to avoid problems like your adviser changing institutions in your 3rd year of grad school. Additionally, older professors will not see you as competition, which means they probably won't fight you for authorship of a paper or worry about you overshadowing them. That security, however, has its draw-backs. Older professors tend to be less inclined to be in hot fields, less likely to adapt to new trends

Younger professors tend to be at a make-or-brake point in their careers, so they tend to be working and publishing like mad-men or mad-women. Younger professors tend to be more flexible; if a hot new idea comes up in a related field, they can be more willing to jump in and make a contribution. Younger professors are often more focused on getting grants (grants look really good when tenure review rolls around), which means that they can be better funded in some cases than older professors. At the very least, there is almost no chance of a younger professor getting into a research topic that nobody else cares about or going into research-retirement, as some older professors have been known to do. Also, younger professors tend to have more current, first-hand knowledge of the job market and of current publishing practices.

So which is better? My biased opinion is that more established advisers are the way to go. My adviser is quite well-established in astrophysical fluid dynamics. He is very well known in the field and has connections all over the globe and in many different areas. He has at least 3 former grad students/post-docs that are currently faculty at CU and quite a few more scattered all over the world. At this point in his career he is more of an administrator of our research group than an actual researcher himself, but that means that he will never fight me for authorship of a paper. Essentially my adviser has been around the block a few times, knows the pot-holes, and has a nice system for steering his grad students around them.

What do you think? Which way have you gone or will you go?


  1. My thesis adviser, Asantha Cooray, who I just finally decided on earlier this month after working with a couple groups, definitely falls into the young and explosively energetic category:

    1. Published over 20 first author papers in 4 years as a grad student.
    2. Has published ~100 papers in the last 5 years. (look it up, I get exactly 100 actually)
    3. Has raised enough funding to hire 3 postdocs, 4 graduate students, 7 summer students this summer and nobody has to TA. (May hire a 4th post doc but I shouldn't say anything official)
    4. Has a partial assignment at Caltech.

    So far my only regret is not choosing him earlier. I wasted ~6 months telling myself I really want to try working with several people but ultimately became less productive because of it. It hasn't happened yet, but soon I hope to make up for that mistake.

    I really have learned a lot watching him. He is very efficient and as I alluded to last week, is already teaching me how to write official grant proposals.

    There are two papers I am working on that should be out in the next month or two. He told me he would be last author and I first so no problems there.

    We will see in the future how much weight his connections hold when I go to apply for a job.

    However, in general I agree with everything Nick says. I have noticed that more established advisers usually turn out to be the best. For me, however, Asantha Cooray is really working out well.

  2. How about a mix. My situation right now I am halfway between the older professors and the new young whiz kid. They recently hired a new faculty member here and they are fully expecting him to help grow our numerical astrophysics group here (we only have one serious numerical guy right now). An older faculty member recruited me to work on a project that will be passed off to the new faculty when he gets here later this summer. The older faculty member who is currently funding me does observation so his intent is to use me as a translator between observation (him) and theory (the new faculty).

    So my response is, "Why choose? Why not do both?"

  3. Young or old, I do think it's important to work for an adviser who has a large, well-funded group. My adviser, Juri Toomre, has a group that includes 2 senior researchers, 1 post-doc, and 4 grad students at CU, with extensive network of collaborators, most of whom are Juri's former students or post-docs. I think that for a research group to be as effective as possible, it needs a critical mass of activity and ideas. I have seen some of my friends go into smaller groups, which can be effective as well, but I think larger groups are a better bet in general.

  4. I completely agree Nick. I think successful groups do need a critical mass.

  5. Ryan,
    I will be interested to see how the 2 advisers thing works out for you. I know of 2 people doing that here at CU. In one case it is working beautifully as the grad student makes synthetic observations of galaxy clusters from cosmological simulations and then compares them to real observations. In the other case it is turning out to be a bit rougher than expected as the grad students is trying to work with both a planetary surfaces expert and a cosmologist on selecting a site for a radio telescope on the far side of the moon.

    Best of luck to you. When those kind of bridging projects work they can be excellent, but then again occasionally they don't work as well as one would hope.


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