The Evil You Know or the One You Don’t

Since I got a good response to my last “Mr. Cheap Asks” post, here’s another (it’s nice to have a think-tank ready to weigh in on my challenges in life). For those who don’t like reading comments, the consensus on the last question was that corporations usually can’t borrow money unless they have a guarantor, many assets and low debt or a multi-year history of income and expenses. Mr. Cheap was wrong on this issue.

As I’ve posted before, I’m applying for a PhD. I got my first admission to a school a couple of days ago, and hopefully more will be in the pipeline. Ideally I’ll have the pleasant problem of deciding between two good choices.

At one school, I have a supervisor I know (I’ve had a class with him before) and who seems like he’ll be a great person to work with. I’ve talked to his current students, and they all rave about how much he invests in his grad students.

Another school is the number one school in the country for the area I’m interested in. I’ve never been to the town it’s located in, and I don’t know any of the faculty there (it’s University of Alberta in Edmonton).

My choice seems to be between a great supervisor at an ok school, or an unknown supervisor (maybe good, maybe bad) at a great school.

A comparable situation would be whether you’d rather work for a great boss at an ok company, or an unknown boss at a great company?

Any thoughts? For anyone who remembers going through a comparable situation, what was the end result and did you have any regrets?

13 replies on “The Evil You Know or the One You Don’t”

I think what you should do in this situation is to go and visit the great school in Alberta, where you don’t at all have an idea of who your supervising Prof. might be. You don’t even need to visit the university personally, either – you could do some research about the faculty (and I’m sure you know how to do research, seeing as that you’ve made it this far into the educational system!).

A great school counts for a lot these days (what with all those fake degrees from Thailand floating around), and correct me if I’m wrong, but Ph.D. work is mostly independent and in the end, your dissertation will be looked at by a group of people, rather than an individual.

First of all, congratulations! That’s fantastic news, and you must be relieved to hear so early. Now my advice:

Bosses might come and go, but professors with tenure usually don’t. So there’s every reason to assume that you’ll have the same supervisor for the full 5 years (or whatever). That being said, you can change your supervisor, so if you pick a real jerk, you’re not stuck with that mistake.

So the way that I see it, is that both factors are very important. A good supervisor is invaluable and a bad supervisor can make your life hell. But a PhD from an okay school may not get you an academic job. So what I would do is this:

– talk to the school that you got into and ask for information about their student placements. Where did their PhDs end up? Which universities and which companies? If a good many of their former students have tenure-track positions, then that’s a great sign. If the department doesn’t have that information, talk to the professors and current grad students about it. You should actually do that with all the schools you’re considering.

– If you’re considering U of A, you should go check it out before you make any decisions. See if you can pump their students for information about the faculty. Maybe you could even go to a conference or two to see if you could get to know them first. I don’t know, it’s hard to tell what a supervisor would be like when you live in a different province.

Wow, that was like the longest comment ever. Hope it helps though, and congratulations again!

Shawn has a great suggestion. Where you do your post graduate work will make a difference in your prospects when you go to work after. Whether it’s in the private sector or academic. My nephew did his PhD at UofT then went to work as a post-doc researcher at USC San Diego for a couple years and is now returning to Canada to work at a research institute. Your supervising prof should be a good teacher and well respected in the field (and thus connected to help you getting a position after)–if he/she is a great person to get along with, that’s bonus.

I’ve only ever been an undergrad student at the u of a (MecE), but it is certainly a growing university. The administration is driven to make it one of the top ones in the world and as such, I think you can expect top notch professors.

Well, usually you’ll get to fly out and interview with both so you can at least see each other face-to-face and hash out any concerns you might have…

Being able to get along with your supervisor is going to be important, for sure, but I’d also look into other things. Do both supervisors have an equal track record for getting their students out and defended on time? Is there a thesis project you have in mind? Do they have one in mind for you? If so, do they have the equipment and skills needed to carry it through? Is the equipment going to last 5+ years? If it’s some major shared resource like a telescope or MRI, is it over-used to the point where you’ll get shoe-horned into doing your research on Tuesday nights from midnight to 4 am?

From my own personal life story, I did some undergraduate research with a pair of professors using a prototype pulsed laser system. That thing was a steaming pile of failure that was down and needed tweaking far more often than it worked. Despite my good relationships with the professors, I ran away.

I interviewed with a number of potential supervisors. One had a bustling lab, a good track record, and a well-defined project ready for me to take up… but the project didn’t have enough breadth to be turned into a PhD (I was starting as an MSc at the time), so I gave it a pass. Another professor had a bustling lab with about a dozen productive grad students, but had no idea what project I might be able to work on, and my getting time on the equipment would have to wait until one of the senior students graduated to free up space. Another seemed to misunderstand my application/CV because his work was really far beyond what I had any experience or interest in.

Where I ended up, I had two supervisors: one who’s a senior researcher with like 20 grad students who doesn’t have time for any of them, but who pulls in a lot of grants and had a decent track record of graduating them on time. The other one was a junior professor who was my main, day-to-day advisor. They had equipment that was working reliably and available for me to use on a reasonable time basis, lab facilities for nearly everything I needed, and grant money to buy the things they didn’t already have. It was going well for a while until I realized the one thing I forgot: they didn’t have any expertise in the slightest in the field I was doing research in. So when I ran into a snag, they couldn’t help me because it was too far outside their scope, and no one within the “broader research group” could really help either 🙁

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a huge happy-smiley-butterflies-and-ponies ending there, but I hope that’s of some help to you!

Thanks for the great comments! Going to check out U of A definitely seems like a good next step (I should drive out there with Mike and we could blog about our wacky adventure en-route!). A lot of good ideas for other things to consider / ask about when I go…

OK, worthy of consideration, living near the U of A is likely not “budget” unless you get student housing. Of course, being on Whyte Ave is really a great place to be. If I moved back to Edmonton, I’d shoot to live in the Whyte Ave region. (Oh yeah, part-time work is also a snap, Alberta doesn’t just have a people shortage, they have a brain shortage.).

However, I’m going to disagree (very harshly) with everyone here and on this statement specifically: A comparable situation would be whether you?d rather work for a great boss at an ok company, or an unknown boss at a great company?

You are working on your PhD. What does a prof or a school have anything to say about it? Your prof is not your boss, he is, at best, your guide. Your school is not your company, it is, at best, a location to ply your trade.

You’re not going to MIT. On the grand scale here, the U of T or McGill or McMaster are no more or less prestigious than the U of A or anywhere else you could be. Plus, you’re doing your work in the Computing Science field. You could likely do most of this work from the Antarctic ice fields with a crank-up laptop, a pile of books and a sat-phone connection.

So here are the two big questions:
1. What is your thesis?
2. What is your ultimate purpose for this PhD?

Once you know the answer to #1, you can find the guide who’s actually suited to help you out. Don’t have a thesis, don’t have a short list? Then you’re just going to get dragged along in some prof’s wake doing work you may not like for 2 years to get a piece of paper that will give you the privilege, nay, the Right to continue to do more of that work you don’t want to do anyways.

Of course, if you already have a thesis, then how does the prof even matter? Unless you plan on extending that prof’s work, then they probably don’t know any more about your topic than you do.

The answer to #2 is going to define what you do with your days for years to come, but you haven’t included that answer in this post. If you want to get a PhD “just because”, then it doesn’t matter where you go or what you do. Take the path of least resistance and waste as little time as possible on it.

But this is all my philosophy here Cheap. You’re asking a variation on the fundamental question (“what the heck do I want to do with my life”), but you’re not giving nearly enough information to justify a position either way.

Personally (and I do mean this with respect), I wouldn’t do a PhD unless I were hand-picking my adviser. If you haven’t taken the time to find the perfect adviser, then it doesn’t really matter, any adviser will do.

But really, if all you want is your PhD then apply at Athabasca and the University of Phoenix and just do it from home. Cheapest option around.

Gates VP, I would most humbly and emphatically disagree with your assertion that the school doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. I spent ten years placing PhDs in industry & academia as a recruiter and it’s a sad reality that where you went to school, who your supervisor was and all that snobby crap matters. I will qualify that by saying it mostly matters if you want to stay in the academic world. I say mostly. Out in industry where a PhD would be hired, there is often an element of old-boy networking: hiring a fellow alumnus or exercising bias for/against certain universities or distain/respect for certain profs who may have been your supervisor. I have truly felt sorry for talented PhDs tossed from a short list because of what I saw were ridiculous reasons: ‘he worked with so & so–that guy is a left-wing nut who believes blahblahblah’ So what? He’s not the candidate!

But I digress in a fit of pique. I can’t think of any other hiring circumstance other than academia or industry hiring of PhDs where this sort of nonsense goes on. Go to the best school you’re accepted at with the most respected supervisor you can. As I mentioned before, if he/she is a nice person who maybe can also kindly educate you about the politics of academia, so much the better.

As someone who is in the middle of a PhD, I can’t recommend highly enough that you visit any prospective universities.

More importantly, also talk extensively with all potential supervisors, their current graduate students, past graduate students, and other students within the department.

Your research supervisor is your MENTOR who will be helping to equip you with the skills necessary to be a professional researcher.

As well, a supervisor with a good name will make it easier to get scholarships, invites to conferences, review papers, and eventually get a job.

There have been MANY horror stories of lame supervisors who have made grad school a living hell for grad students. A friend of mine currently works 7 days a week because his supervisor told him he had too. His supervisor tells him what hours he works, and what days he gets off at Christmas.

What can he say? If he tells his boss to screw off, then there goes your future career. When you’re 3 years in, changing supervisors would be even more of a disaster.

Choose wisely – your supervisor is VERY important to your grad school experience.


PS: I’m really happy with my supervisor choice!

Thank you Leslie.

Cheap, Leslie’s comment is the exact reason I’m asking what you want to do with your PhD. There are two worlds out there, especially in computing. There’s a world where you pick where you’re going or a world where others pick for you.

I would never worry about being turned down for a job b/c someone didn’t like my research adviser. I don’t live in a world where those people matter. It’s nice to think that those people control research grants and they build their own little empires, but I don’t live in a world where those people control my destiny and money.

I live in a world where Harvard dropout Bill Gates spends more money on software than all of the US comp. sci. research budgets combined. I live in a world where guys like Steve Jobs and Anders Hejlsberg and John Walker and Mark Zuckerberg are constantly changing the computing landscape and they don’t have PhDs. Quick what school is Linus Torvalds from, what was his masters project? Right, Linux is one of the top OSes of our time and a landmark in the evolution of computing, who cares about Linus’s adviser, it really doesn’t look like he needed one.

Again, Leslie and Chris are both right about the world of research.

However, there are two sides to the world of computing. That’s why I ask about your dream. I won’t begrudge you either decision you make, heck I’ll take you out for beers if you end up at the U of A, just make sure that you follow the dream and make your dream instead of making your dream follow the path.

Leslie & Chris: Yes, those are all issues very much at the forefront of my thinking. Visiting the school is rapidly moving up my priority list from “a very good idea” to “absolutely necessary”.

Gates: I appreciate where you’re coming from, but I’m firmly with Leslie and Chris on this one. I think your experience in grad school (I’m assuming you did a Masters or PhD given the strength of your opinion on the matter) must have been radically different than mine when I was doing my Masters.

Well everyone else has said what I was going to Mr Cheap- definitely check out the supervisor you don’t know, it would be miserable to be at a school with a lousy professor right off the bat. You can change supervisors, I did, but it can delay you, or cause you unnecessary stress. Congrats on your first admission though, that is very exciting!
Oh and whether you think it will matter or not which school and which supervisor you have, if you have a great school and a great supervisor you will inevitably find yourself mentioning this as a positive once you are all finished, so why not try and get the best for yourself now if you can?

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