Sunday, January 17, 2010

Choosing a Supervisor, part 1

I have heard the metaphor that choosing a supervisor for your PhD is like choosing a spouse or a parent.
I think that, while both of these have a ring of truth to them, the better metaphor is that your supervisor is like choosing who you, the future you, in a decade or two's time.
When I first went to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, I was admitted as one of thirty-odd incoming miscellaneous postgraduate students, as is typical for the vast majority of large PhD-grading research-centric PhD programs in the U.S.A. The majority of time during our first two years was taking graduate courses in computing, being a Teaching Assistant (TA) and helping teach undergraduate (and sometimes graduate) courses, and preparing for our PhD exams and/or building our portfolios.
I was offered, and declined, a RA position by the LASER group, led by Profs. Lori Clarke, Lee Osterweil, and Jack Wileden. Other students in the group at the time included my distinguished colleagues Peri Tarr, Matt Dwyer, and Alex Wolf was a semi-recent graduate.
Their group, at least at the time, ran using the "cog-in-wheel" approach to research groups. In that approach, one of several about which I will write in a future post, students are "given" a project on which to work, and typically that project becomes a key component of their PhD. I was interested in finding my own topic, and at the time I was consumed with distributed systems and computer graphics, so I felt the LASER group was not a good match for me. In the end, after teaching for a year, I took a part-time job as a system administrator for the department and ended up doing an MSc with Chip Weems.
Had someone given me advice like that which I am writing now, I likely would have stayed in that group and gone on to have an equally good career, perhaps with fewer fits-and-starts (good) and less variety (bad).
Now, several universities, companies, degrees (and fifteen years) later, I have seen the full gamut of PhD supervisors, good and bad, and witnessed the inspiration and chaos they instill in research students, fresh and hoary.
Consequently, here are the questions that I think you should ask while choosing a supervisor. I'll post one a day for a week or two, then summarize in a final post.
1. What is his/her research reputation?
Do you want to work for a superstar or an everyman? If you do not really care about their research impact, then there isn't anything to investigate.
But, if you are interested in someone who is very good (i.e., with an international reputation, well-respected, makes an impact, etc.), look to see what program committees they are on. You want to see all "A" profile conferences and better. Look also if they are on the organizing committees of any long-lived high-profile, high-quality conferences. Also look to see if they are frequently invited to give kenotes at major conferences.
Do you want to work for a supervisor who has never been on a program committee, or has only been on committees of faceless conferences of dubious reputation?

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home