Dear Mentor: Finding an advisor in the sciences?

Dear Mentor,

I am in a master’s program in the sciences and planning to go on for a PhD. I hear having a good advisor can really make or break grad school. How do I go about finding a good advisor? What questions should I be asking a potential advisor or his or her current students? And how do I make the best use of that advisor/advisee relationship? Thank you!

Two of our mentors from the sciences replied along with two guest mentors who have recently graduated from their PhD programs in the sciences. We have taken highlights from their responses.

From Kelly Aukema

A few questions to ask and points to consider as you choose an advisor for graduate work:


  1. Research subject. Is there an aspect of the advisor’s research that excites you enough to make it your own? Fun and engaging research is most important for PhD work which will last five-plus years. Most importantly, will you have the opportunity to learn the skills you hope to learn in grad school?
  2. Fellow grad students. Take the time to meet other students who are being advised by a faculty member you are considering for an advisor. With laboratory-based research, these individuals will be your peers during graduate school. They will be the ones you interact with on a daily basis. Can you work together and learn from each other? Be sure to ask current students (those being advised by the candidate advisor and those under other advisors) what their impressions are of the faculty member. Ask them questions about advising style, strengths, and weaknesses.
  3. Past graduate students. Did they find jobs? Did they have quality publications and awards? If you can connect with these past students, ask about their experiences with the potential advisor.
  4. Advising style. Ask yourself what type of advising style you need. Ask friends who know you what style of advising you need. Then do not only ask the students what style a potential advisor uses, but ask the professor what his style is. In this area it is important to consider management styles like hands on, micro-managing, distant, or delegating as well as possible hierarchical structures such as graduate student training by post docs and undergraduate training by graduate students.
  5. Advisor reputation. Within the broader academic community, what is the reputation of the potential advisor? Has she received university, national, or international recognition? For a junior faculty member, did she receive graduate or postdoctoral awards? What are her ambitions as a professor?
  6. Tenure. A tenured professor is not likely to lose his position within the university; however, he may be lured away by a better offer at another university. A non-tenured professor is not likely to move before the tenure decision, but if the decision is negative, that can be devastating for a graduate student. In this situation, the student usually will begin again with a new advisor on a project that should move quickly. With a non-tenured professor, consider the time you will need to finish and the time remaining before the tenure decision. Ask other faculty members (department chair especially) about the professor’s prospects.
  7. Work ethic. Mentors for The Well have written before about the tendency toward unhealthy work in the academy. Since the advisor sets the tone, is her work ethic relatively healthy? Is she working long hours (more than 70 hours per week) with long periods of wasted time, long intense hours, or normal hours of focused intentional work?
  8. Writing style. You will do a ridiculous amount of writing for/with your advisor. Are your writing styles compatible or at least complementary? If there are areas of your writing that you know need improvement, do you see strengths in those areas in the potential advisor’s writing style?

The stuff that’s missing is harder to write about. I know of those who, if they had asked all of these questions before choosing their advisor, would not have ended up with the advisor they had. But, they believed God wanted them to be where they were and in being there, in often difficult situations, they learned so much about who they were, why graduate school was important for them, etc. So, ask the questions, but know that God’s leading trumps them all.


From Dorothy Boorse and colleagues

Where is the advisor in their career? Older advisors are usually more established in their fields and often have more extensive networks, but they may not be doing the latest research. Younger advisors may be doing more “cutting-edge” research and have the potential for projects that can have greater impact, but they may also not be as well-known and may be more demanding as they need publications for tenure (meaning more stress on themselves and their students).

What is the lab dynamic? How big is the research group? Are there other students, post-docs, lab techs? Often you are learning from others in the lab group and not just the advisor, so having a good spread of people often helps.


From an anonymous guest mentor

I personally had a very difficult time interacting with my advisor. As a result, I often floundered miserably in my thesis work and was depressed for a good bit of graduate school. I survived with a PhD, but would not want anybody to go through the same thing.

How does one go about finding a good fit in an advisor? Of course you will want to sit down with the potential advisor and discuss possible projects prior to entering a formal relationship. Ask them directly about their ability to fund your research, which projects are open, their philosophy regarding collaboration (both within their research group members and with outside collaborators), and the careers of former advisees.

As you talk with previous and current students, bear in mind that what one unhappy graduate student dislikes the most about their advisor may be a quality you would love. For example, some advisors are very hands-off, which some students hate, while others love it and thrive with the freedom.

Once you have entered into the advisor/advisee relationship, there are steps you can take to make it as productive as possible. Make sure the lines of communication are always open. Share your research progress with them frequently, even if it feels like you haven’t made any headway. It is common to feel embarrassed that your project is not moving along faster. This is exactly where your advisor can be most helpful in guiding you. Realize you may need to be very proactive in garnering your advisor’s attention. Faculty members are incredibly busy and sometimes lose track of time, semesters’ worth sometimes! Make a point of setting up regular meetings with them and going into those meetings organized.


From guest mentor Kayt Frisch


In some graduate programs you don’t have a lot of flexibility in choosing a mentor. And sometimes you make the wrong “read” when you’re choosing. It’s important to remember that while there is some truth in the saying that an advisor can “make or break” the grad school experience, your advisor is not the end of the story. Graduate school is going to have rough patches regardless of your choice of advisor, and a large part of being successful in graduate school is having a support structure in place to help you through those difficult times. That support structure can consist of people both inside and outside the university: your friends, your church, other students in your lab, additional faculty mentors, etc. So don’t see finding the perfect advisor as the only way to survive graduate school!

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