Friday, February 19, 2010

Choosing a Supervisor, part 5

Aside: Over the past few weeks I have been in the middle of a vacation in the USA, a move of my family to Denmark, and starting a new job at ITU. Apologies for the silence in posting.
9. Young vs. Old
Your potential supervisor typically must have a PhD, so this means that they are an "experienced" researcher, but how old are they? On the young side, typically a supervisor is of at least 25/28 years (EU/USA) in age. On the older side, since retirement ages vary from country to country, your potential supervisor might be nearing or into their 70s, or even their 80s. While it is inappropriate to discriminate based upon age, your potential supervisor's age does have repercussions.
Is your potential supervisor nearing retirement? Are they the super-star having just earned their PhD themselves? Something in between?
Supervisors that are at either end of the age spectrum present potential problems, none of which are insurmountable nor intimidating, but should be reflected upon.
A very young supervisor might have little-to-no experience with supervising research themselves. Some universities and supervisors insist that their PhD students gain some experience with supervision, either of undergraduates or MSc students, but this is by no means the norm. Likewise, many quality new professors in the USA obtained their positions directly out of graduate school, so they never held a postdoc position wherein they might have co-supervised a PhD student, a situation that is much more common in the EU.
Also, while one might communicate with a young supervisor more naturally, since you may be in (nearly) the same age group/generation, some people have difficulty working for and respecting a boss that is nearly the same age (or younger!) than themselves. This can be particularly problematic for returning students---can you work for a professor that is a decade your junior?
The dual of this situation is working with a supervisor that is several generations your elder. While they may have enormous amounts of experience and have graduated dozens of PhD students, their core attitudes and perceptions may reflect a different age. This can especially become a tricky situation in fast-moving fields like computing, where research that is five years old is sometimes considered ancient.
Also, to be blunt, an older supervisor may choose to retire, or may have health problems that lead to troublesome situations late in your career. What happens if you are in the final stretch of your PhD and your supervisor decided to retire and move to Florida or, in the worst case, passes away? What is your contingency plan for such a situation?

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