Posted by: thediygeochemist | September 14, 2010

stuff I’ve learned: part I

With admissions season coming up, I feel compelled to write a series for prospective grads. I can’t believe it’s been 2 years since I went through this myself, and having been a grad student for a year plus certainly has affected my perspective.

First, I recommend that any newbies to my blog read my “advice I’m glad I took” series here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Of course there is also a Part 4, and it is this Part 4 that I want to elaborate on in this post. If you remember, it was my younger sister Courtney who gave me advice snippet #4: Your choice of advisor will make or break your grad school experience.

Having been in grad school for a while now, I see how true this is. I’ve had several friends deal with advisor issues, to the point where at least one, maybe more, of them have considered dropping out. And I see other groups where people are frustrated because it’s hard to get face time with their advisor. Yes, there are more senior grad students and/or postdocs, but they chose their advisor for his/her expertise, not that of his/her underlings.

So how do you choose a good advisor?

(1) Funding. One thing I wish I’d known as a prospective student is that it’s irrelevant how well funded a professor is when you visit in the spring. If they have money in the bank, they’re going to give their current students priority, or take on other students who are already attending the school. They’re not going to reserve it for you. Instead, look at their track record of getting funding–how many grants have they gotten in the last two years? How many grant proposals have they submitted in the last year? (I hear success rates for grants run in the 5-15% range–so a prof should be submitting quite a few proposals per year.)

(2) Papers. Some might say you should count how many papers the professor publishes per year. I’d look at it differently–how many papers do students typically publish before graduation? How does this compare to normal for your field? What’s the interval between papers for a given student? If possible, look at papers which are 5+ years old and see how many cites those papers got. Sometimes you want quality, not just quantity, in publishing.

(3) How many people are in the group? How soon will they graduate? When I visited, Dr. HW had 3 in hers: two graduated before I joined the lab, and the other graduated shortly thereafter. It is not a good thing to be the only one in a group. On the other hand, groups of 20+ are unwieldy and almost a sure guarantee that you’ll get little face time with your advisor.

(4) What’s the advisor’s approach to mentoring? There are professors who make you evaluate papers which they’re supposed to peer review. You write the review, they submit it with their name on it. And then there are those who say, “I’ve got this paper to review. Why don’t we both review it and compare notes?” Which do you think is a better way of learning a skill? Some things are best learned from other students (most advisors aren’t that proficient at running their own instrumentation) but others should be learned by someone who’s been in the academic world for years and years.

(5) Face time. You want a professor who will spend a reasonable amount of one-on-one time with you. On the other hand, you don’t want someone who’s constantly breathing down your neck. Balance is good.

(6) Personality. Yes, this matters. Some advisors are more overbearing than others; some like to chatter more than others; some expect you to work 7 days a week; some expect you to regularly join them for a beer. There is no right or wrong choice here–extraverts may gravitate to the last group while introverts shun it. Professors have different personalities: so do their groups. Get a feel for what life in your advisor’s group would be like, and consider whether it would be tolerable for you.

Finally, let me say that one of the most critical bits in advisor choice is to make yourself ‘tasty bait’ for a prospective advisor. It doesn’t matter if you locate the perfect grad school mentor if that person doesn’t want you in his/her group.

When I visited as a prospective grad I managed to impress 3 potential advisors. The guy at GoodU who offered me a summer RA only liked me after I got into an argument with him(!); the guy at MountainU liked me because I’d read his papers and offered a way to tweak his research approach in a way that incorporated skills I already had.

And then there was Dr. Hand-Waver. I claim to have chosen Dr. HW, but the reality is that I think she subtly manipulated things so that I would choose her. I did tell her ‘yes’, but that’s about as far as my choice went. Dr. HW is the chair of the admissions committee and therefore has the task of assigning students their temporary advisors. I doubt it was a coincidence that, last year, the two new students with an interest in environmental stuff were assigned to her. She made sure we both took her class that first semester, and I think she made her decision based on my performance. Fall semester wasn’t even over when she offered me a summer RA …and once I actually started working for her, I was hooked. Clever lady. Subtle, too. My kind of woman!

If there are lots of things to consider here, it’s because your advisor is going to be your boss-teacher-parent (almost) for the next 3-5 (or more) years. Plus, the skills you learn (and networking opportunities you gain) from your advisor may well influence your career for years or decades to come. It’s a serious decision.



  1. I think that when picking an advisor it goes the research, then do you get along with them and the group, whether the group is happy or they hate the boss, and finally job placement

    • Barry:

      That’s conventional wisdom, but I disagree with it. I’ve met far too many people (and heard of many others) who have dropped out of grad school due to advisor issues. My feeling–and I’ve heard profs echo this since I’ve started grad school–is to make your primary choice finding an advisor you can get along with, and make the research secondary.

      After all, you usually end up doing a project that your advisor gets funding for rather than what *you* really want to do, anyway. So, to me, the key test is this–which advisor will get you through grad school with the optimal balance of skills gained vs. interpersonal frustration? (Frustration with research can’t be helped and will rule your life. You don’t need more frustration on top of that.)

  2. Ok, I think you misunderstood me. Job placement was third on my list and you don’t go to the prof for that information. Older grad students are a life saver. They know all. Like when I was choosing my advisor it went research, yes it depend on funding but everyone has a general notch which they do, then how’s their personality and does it relate to you, and lastly from the older grad students you can know their job placement history. Most departments you can get a good 10-15 years worth the job placements just from older grad students who has friends and then friends of friends from that advisor. Mind you one and two should be 95 percent of decision.

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