I once asked a professor in my department “why do professors take on graduate students?” He was taken aback by the question, and said it was somewhat like asking why do fire fighters put out fires – in both cases it’s central to the job. With professors, there is flexibility on how many students they take on. I think it’s worthwhile to consider what motivates a professor when they agree to supervise a graduate student.
The Sacred Duty of Teaching
This is what the professor who joked about the fire fighters was referring to. At the core of a professor’s duties is teaching. Although university teaching typically involves undergraduates, graduate courses are a similar dynamic between a group of graduate students and professors. A big part of supervision is, through the collaboration between faculty and graduate students, for the grad students to learn how to be researchers. This is a fundamentally different form of teaching, more like a master and an apprentice in the Renaissance than the classroom instruction most students have had experience with.
Part of grant applicants and performance reviews for faculty members are training highly qualified personnel (HQP), that is, graduate students. The number of graduate students trained in the past is, in part, an indication of the quality of the faculty member’s research group. The specific number of graduate students to be supported on that grant is another positive – grant writing agencies like to see graduate students being trained. Usually this is because of a mandate to the funding organization. Many government agencies work towards getting more citizens to be highly educated.
Boosted Research Productivity
When you work for a professor as a graduate student, there is time commitment from the faculty member. Weekly meetings, reviewing documents, dealing with problems that come up with the program, research setback and conference logistics all take time. The research produced by graduate students is usually shared with their supervisor, and enhances that faculty member’s research profile. On the whole, most professors would view this as a very large gain – they get much more research accomplished, despite the time investment, from working with graduate students.
Some professors will have a strongly defined core research program, and new graduate students will be strongly encouraged to contribute to that program. Other professors are happy to let their graduate students move in whatever direction they feel drawn in. Either approach should result in novel research, which should eventually be published and should have the adviser’s name on it as well as the students.
It has been said that one strong PhD student can get a professor tenure.
This may, at first blush, strike some as unseemly – the professor managing their flock of graduate students who are doing the actual research. Ultimately a PhD can be viewed as training you to lead a research group – which is exactly what the professor is doing in this situation.
This varies by discipline. In philosophy, for example, all work is done by a single author. Even if a supervisor helps a student with a publication, the student publishes it by themselves as sole author.
What To Do With This Information
It’s good to know that you’re bring something of value to the table. If a professor takes you on as a graduate student, they’re probably using your presence in their research group to help apply for some grants. Additionally, but graduating you’re helping all their future grant applications. Finally, publications you work on will be helping your adviser as well as yourself.
If you’re talking to a professor trying to convince them to supervise you, assuring them that you’ll graduate in a timely fashion and have a productive research output are good points to hit.