Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Choosing a Supervisor, part 3

This is part three of the post, Choosing a Supervisor.
The next few questions I suggest asking yourself before choosing a supervisor are as follows:
3. What is their noteriety?
The personality and demeanor of a supervisor are critical to your suceess. In particular, their personality needs to "fit" with yours.
Some people work very well under high pressure with a very critical supervisor; others crumble. Some want a very hands-off supervisor and lots of independence. Others want a kid-glove and only to hear positive feedback.
Each supervisor has a very different approach to interacting with PhD students, and often that approach is very consistent over a multi-year timeframe. Some supervisors are just asses, plain and simple, but because they are research superstars, it is tolerated.
Do you want to work for an ass? A nice guy? An introvert? An extrovert?
4. How do they work?
Different researchers work different ways. To be a successful world-class researcher requires discipline and commitment, but it does not necessarily require giving up a social life, a family, and television. The way that your potential supervisor works oftens tells you how they expect you to work as well.
Are they an 9 to 5 type, or will you find them in their office at 11pm? Do they work directly with students in their lab, or do they only "manage" research? Do they seem to work very hard, but without a lot of results, or vice versa? Do they expect their students to work as hard and long as they do, or much harder or longer? Do they have families? Kids?
Do you want to work for a workaholic with a family that they never see? Or perhaps a professor that has found a good balance between family and work? Or a single person completely committed to their career?
5. Theoretician vs. Experimentalist/Breadth vs. Depth
Like many fields of science, computing sees some research that is purely theoretical and often requires nothing more than a pencil, a paper, and grey matter. Other groups eschew such research and focus entirely on an experimental approach, building realistic, non-trivial systems that are evaluated through quantitatively analysis.
The notion of "experiment" also varies from sub-discipline to sub-discipline. Within some communities the notion is quite ad hoc, while in others it is very rigorous.
Finally, some research groups are very focused and deep, exploring one specific topic for many years. Others are quite broad, permitting their students to choose topics from a broad set of topics---sometimes all of computing!
What kind of group do you want to be a part of? Do you prefer rigorous mathematical foundations, or would you rather just build and measure systems? Perhaps you see the value and attraction of both approaches? Do you want to be the single world-expert in one highly-focused topic, or would you rather play in a bigger sandbox, perhaps not digging as deeply?

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