Wednesday, January 16, 2013

[Good Supervisor] >> [Big Name]

I just got an e-mail from a student who wants to do a PhD. This person asked me about who are the big names studying complex systems from mathematics and applied mathematics.

Something is just so epically wrong with the way we're doing things when random students wanting to work in the area ask me "Who are the big names?" rather than "Who are good advisors?" or "Who are good people with whom to work?"

Damnit, the fact that this is the usual question (instead of my alternatives or similar) means we're sending the wrong damn message!

I don't care who the bloody big names are. I care about who has relevant expertise and is doing something interesting and is good to work with and is a good advisor and is not an asshole. They don't need to be high on any sort of stupid totem poll. Damnit, that's not what it's about.

Almost the whole damn world is missing the point. (You might be working with a big shot, but are you really helping yourself by making yourself miserable? If somebody is a big name, great. It doesn't hurt. But it is fundamentally the wrong question to ask! And students ask these kinds of questions rather than the better alternatives because their teachers are not steering them in the right direction regarding what questions they should be asking.)

I am waiting for the big award whose descriptive text says that the recipient "must be a competent scientist who is not an asshole." I want to see that award. It needs to exist.

[[steam coming out of every part of my body]]

Update (1/17/13): As it turns out, I completely misunderstood this student's question. This student apparently wanted to know what areas of mathematics to study to do research in networks. Now that is a good question!


Justin said...

That's a very good point. Though I suspect the key to making people get it would be if letters of recommendation from Prof. Good Advisor were worth at least as much as letters from Prof. Big Name. Maybe that's already true, but I suspect it's not. In which case these young students do have a defensible position though not one that I agree with (I worked tangentially with a Big Name at Santa Cruz, but she was not my advisor and I don't think she ended up writing letters for me when I was applying for jobs).

Anyway, my sympathies. Hopefully these students will get what they deserve, however one chooses to interpret that. :-)

Mason said...

Sadly, you are correct. But it's one of the symptoms of the fact that we're doing things epically wrong overall. The big shot's opinion is worth no more than that of the competent non-asshole.