When experience isn't the only thing that matters: Choosing between Junior & Senior graduate supervisors
Article written by chief-editor of MyGraduateSchool.com - Sarah Brown Tesolin
If you are applying to a graduate program that requires a thesis supervisor for your Masters or Ph.D., it may seem like a good idea to choose one that is experienced, established and perhaps even renowned in their field of study. This reasoning stems from a common assumption that an established graduate supervisor is more likely to provide opportunities for success for their grad students than a junior faculty member can.
Although at first glance, this does appear to be a reasonable assumption, the truth is that there are many benefits of working with a junior faculty member. Many of which I have experienced myself, having worked as a research assistant in not one but two labs that were run by bran-spanking new faculty members. So, before you disregard potential faculty members based on their lack of experience, consider the following benefits.
Benefits of a Junior Faculty Member
Building your cv
Junior faculty are under a lot of pressure in their first few years. They are expected to run an efficient and productive lab, teach and publish their work. This is especially true if they are to be considered for tenure. From a graduate student's, perspective, it can be very beneficial to be a part of this. The more active your supervisor is in his or her research, the more opportunities will be available to you as well.
Considering the odds
Another advantage of applying to work with junior faculty members, is that they are more likely accepting new grad students. Established supervisors on the other hand, are more likely to have the students they need to help them with their current and future research, and may go several years before taking on even one new grad student. So, even if your application may not be the most competitive of the bunch, you may have a better chance of being accepted into a lab with a new faculty member.Also, the more senior faculty members usually have more grad school applicants wishing to study under them, compared to the junior faculty member who is not yet well known. For this reason, one may be competing with fewer other applicants when applying to do graduate work with a junior faculty member.
Building-up vs. sizing-down
New faculty members are likely to be eager and full of ambitious dreams for their future research careers. When you think about it, it makes sense. They have finally been awarded the job that they have been working towards for the last 7 or more years of their life. If you are going to be a grad student for the next several years, you will likely enjoy working in a lab that is continually growing and full of inspiring energy. This is especially evident, if you compare that to working in a lab where the supervisor is nearing-retirement and his or her research activities have perhaps slowed and the lab is in the process of sizing-down.
Pitfalls of a Junior Faculty Member
Although I have mentioned several benefits of working with a junior faculty member, this article would not be complete unless I also pointed out the downside of working with a new faculty member.
When ambition bites you in the ass
New faculty members are under a lot pressure in their first few years and are focussed on getting their research underway as soon as possible. It can happen, and I have seem this myself -- that some have overly-ambitious plans for their first experiments, which don't necessarily pan out as they may have hoped. Now, if you happen to be involved in these early mishaps, it can seem like a waste a time that will not help you build your cv or publication record.
The inevitable inconveniences of any new lab
Another unfortunate circumstance that comes with entering any new lab is that as a graduate student, you may end up spending a lot of your time just setting up a working lab space, rather than working on your research projects. Labs take time to set-up before they become functional and efficient. Computers, printers, phones and any special lab equipment need to be ordered and installed. This often ends up taking a lot more time than you would expect and it may end up being your responsibility to get things up and running. Be prepared for some inconvenience during the set-up period and also consider the possibility that you may not have any lab space allocated to you for the first several weeks or months as you begin graduate school.
Management skills or lack thereof
Another issue of working with a new faculty member is that they don't necessarily have much experience managing a lab or overseeing multiple grad students. Remember, they were Ph.D. students themselves not long ago and not all Ph.D. students are given the opportunity to manage other students, and therefore, they have little experience running a research lab. Given this, as a grad student in such a lab, you can expect some confusion and lack of direction as your supervisor adjusts to their new demands.
New faculty members are allocated some start-up money to get their labs up and running. The amount is usually negotiated in their initial contract. Starting up a lab can be quite costly; from stocking it with basic supplies, to buying special lab equipment and computers. The costs of setting up a new research lab add up very quickly and many junior faculty members may prefer to invest on lab equipment rather than take on grad students that do not have any funding.
Considering all of this, as a potential grad student you have to consider both the benefits and potential pitfalls of working with a junior faculty member. It's important to understand your own limitations. If you feel that you cannot deal with the uncertainties of a new lab, then you might want to consider applying with established faculty members only. On the other hand, if you are willing to trade some inconvenience for the chance to be involved in building a lab from scratch and being involved in innovative research, then it might be the right place for you.
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