Considering the fame of potential advisors?

Dec 02 2015 Published by under [Education&Careers]

In the context of the three most important questions on should ask when choosing a postdoc, came this:

Ok. I get this. But damn if this isn't bad for science. We complain about the homogeneity of academic science. There are large fields where the Academic Tree of Life looks more like a bush, with a few central hubs (almost always older white men). We complain about science too often being a "who you know" game, despite claims of a meritocracy. And the reason all this is an issue is precisely encapsulated above.

Was your advisor famous enough to turn some heads in a search committee? On a funding panel? Are you one of the chosen, or just someone doing science for people who have to work to get their papers in the upper tier journals?

From the selfish perspective of a student who might benefit from such career advantages, I recognize the utility here. But this kind of thing is as corrosive as the Glam Mag Game. Doing great science and learning new tools (Matt's other two suggestions) should be the most critical pieces of the puzzle. Unfortunately, like the Glam Mag Game, individual decisions and motives drive a behavior that is bad for the overall endeavor.

15 responses so far

  • drugmonkey says:

    Tragedy of the commons type of thing? What is best for individual actor is disastrous for the group?

  • qaz says:

    Not all famous advisors will write great letters. (Some won't write letters for you at all. Others will only write letters for the student who wins the C/N/S GlamourMag lottery in their lab.) Not all famous advisors will allow you to do the breakthrough science that you need to do to break through to the faculty game. There are advantages to getting a young, hungry (YunGun?) advisor who will be willing to let you push the boundaries.

    The idea that famous advisor = good for your career is an illusion.

    What you need is an advisor who is well-enough known to be "in the circle" but also someone who is willing to go to the mat for their students.

  • Anon says:

    "What you need is an advisor who is well-enough known to be "in the circle" but also someone who is willing to go to the mat for their students."

    How does one identify this rare breed? And doesn't this rule out the "young" and hungry?

  • DJMH says:

    Flip side is that if you do great science in Yun Gun's lab, more credit can attach to you. All my mentors were pre or peri-tenure; I had a zillion faculty interviews.

    My personal 1st criterion for postdoc choice is, "Is this a nice person to work with?" It worked out.

  • qaz says:

    Lots of young guns are "in the circle". Lots of 'em are still hungry. Remember that many of the young faculty are people who were identified by fields as particularly interesting postdocs. There are great faculty at all levels. What I would say to look for is (1) can you work with that person? [because a bad interaction is going to sink you no matter how hungry or famous or nice or cool the advisor is], (2) is the person still hungry and still doing good work?, (3) do they know the people you want to know [can they help you network?], and (4) will they support you when it comes your time to create your own settlement/colony?

    The key is networking. In addition to talking to the potential mentor and their (current + former) student, talk to your current advisor and your colleagues.

  • Anon2 says:

    I had a famous PhD advisor followed by a famous postdoc boss, and the experiences were completely different. PhD advisor writes good letters, gets people's attention, but also straightforward to work with, intellectually engaged and good manager. Postdoc boss turned out to be a narcissist who had no interest whatsoever in what happens once you're no longer a toy in his collection to brag about. If someone has a reputation for being extremely problematic (didn't hear this until it was too late), their being famous doesn't make it worth the hassle IMO. Made sure to interrogate the next one on management style thoroughly enough to rule out raging self-importance, and got input from someone who had known them for eons. Always talk to current group members before you leap, and don't assume anyone will tell you about problems if you don't ask or if there are other people around.

  • Heavy says:

    Am on a search committee right now, which is playing out like my previous search at a different institution. Famous advisors were noted (including one person with 3 BSD advisors), glam mags were noted (including one person who seemed to shitte them for breakfast), none of them even got on the short list.

  • I agree that finding someone you can work with and who can help you network are some of the most important factors, in addition to having the resources to do great science. Personally, I would rather help propel someone to lofty heights (while getting there myself, obv) than jumping on the band wagon after the fact.

    But yes, it's not always easy to identify the "right" situation, even when you try hard.

  • Noncoding Arenay says:

    @Heavy - that's interesting. What kind of "profile" did get on the short list? Also, if it does not affect your anonymity, why were these two people not shortlisted?

  • Mac says:

    I agree - famous advisers are no guarantee of success and can have pitfalls, you need to consider a lot more than fame. My own experience was having famous grad and postdoc advisers and while I think it sometimes got me a bit more notice it also got me questions about how much of my work was independent (and I didn't even work in the same system as either adviser). My dept has a search going on and yes we noticed the famous letter writers but it had a relatively minor effect on the outcome. Search committees are looking for scientists who will become leaders in the field, not satellites of another famous research program. Some of these people come from famous labs, some don't.

  • banditokat says:

    Might I digress? I'd argue that even us riff raff scientists buy into this every time we have some summer student or friend of a friend who asks us to write a letter for them. I get 'used' for my title, my university and department all the time.
    Is this any better?
    Sure it looks great to some medical school, hemp growing class or parole board to see my university letterhead but meh if I really 'know' these folks.
    I make everyone write a first draft of their letters (which stops some folks in their tracks) and I edit it heavily. I don't say anything untrue but I know my half baked knowledge of them will, unfortunately, be weighted more heavily than that of a teacher who they might have worked one-on-one with.
    In short, I am the problem. Again.

  • Anon says:

    "I make everyone write a first draft of their letters...."

    Does "everyone" include folks you've worked closely with and *should* be writing letters for? I can understand not wanting to do it for people you don't know well, but it's problematic in many ways to make someone write a draft of their letter and then just edit it. Your job is not to *edit* the letters, it's to *write* them! When you sign on the dotted line, do you write "edited by"? And if you're editing so heavily that it's basically writing, then why put the poor student needlessly through that?

    I hate it when people foist their responsibilities onto folks lower in the food chain. People who have had a bunch of letters written for them should just suck it up and graciously reply in kind.

  • Busy says:

    I never ask for first drafts, but I don't mind when some of my references do. They are big names who are rather busy, so essentially they are telling me: in your own words tell me what are the highlights of your record and I'll take it from there.

    Sounds perfectly reasonable to me.

  • Anon says:

    @Busy: There's a difference between jogging a busy (who isn't busy?) person's memory of what you've done in their lab, especially if it's been a few years since you had close contact with them, and writing a draft of a letter that then only gets edited. If you've never experienced this difference, then you have been very lucky.

    And back to banditokat's original point: "Sure it looks great to some medical school, hemp growing class or parole board to see my university letterhead but meh if I really 'know' these folks." So I would argue that if you need to do more than jog someone's memory -- if they know you so little that without your 1st draft they wouldn't be able to write the letter -- then this is a perversion of why the letter is being requested in the first place.

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