Graduate School: How to Pick a Great Adviser
Updated: Feb 27, 2019
Picking a great adviser is the #1 thing you can do to set yourself up for success in graduate school.
January 19, 2019 by Destenie Nock
In undergrad many people choose a school based on the university's reputation, program reputation, scholarships you received, etc. In graduate school, while this may be important, it should only be 10% of your final decision. Your success as a graduate student depends 30% on you (work ethic, perseverance, etc) and 70% on your adviser. This means that a bad adviser can lead to lower graduation rates, long graduate school timelines, and worst of all poor mental health. For those that don't believe me, imagine the following scenario:
You are working at Company X, and in your contract you agree to work on a project. The project sounds amazing and fits your interests. You don't know the manager but the company has a great reputation among the people you want to work for after you leave this entry level position. Additionally, you have been told by a close mentor that doing this job will set you up for that dream job you have wanted since you were 10 years old. So you join the team and start working under this manager. While you are there you find that the manager expects you to complete tasks that are outside of your job description, and changes the project goals three times. This leads to the project taking 2 years longer than you thought it would, but you press on. At the 4 year mark you finally finish the main components of your project, and you show your manager the results. Unfortunately, they tell you they are too busy and never make time to discuss your progress. With your project done you feel ready to move to the next career step, but you cannot leave this job until they say the project is completed. After 6 months they finally look at the project and want you to go back and change something you know will make the project take an additional 8 months. You want to quit but you have already invested 4.5 years in the program, and you don't want to have to start over completely.
I am sure by now you catch my drift. The PhD is the only job you will have where your manager/supervisor/adviser has the power to stop you from moving to a different job. If you don't get along with them, they don't communicate with you, or they are not supporting you, this will be hindering your success. Specifically, I am talking about your success in your projects, dissertation, paper publishing, networking, and on the job market (everyone expects at least one letter of recommendation to come from your adviser). In graduate school you want your overall research focus to fit (ex: if you want to do electricity then don't go to a healthcare professor), but sometimes a personality fit should weigh more than a specific research focus. For example, if you are choosing between two professors who do electricity research, then I would suggest you choose the one you think you communicate with better. This personality fit will benefit you in the long run. While I did not experience a bad adviser, I have had many colleagues who did not get along with their supervisors. Luckily this post is here to help you ask the right questions to illuminate the signs of a great adviser.
To set yourself up for your best opportunity of success you should be asking the professors questions when you are considering graduate school. The questions below are some guidelines that can help reveal a professor's management style, and expectations of you as a graduate student.
A great adviser will have the management style you prefer. Not all managers are created equal. If you need/want a lot of guidance then you should pursue someone who is willing and has the time to be more hands on.
What is your management style? - Hands-off might mean less investment in your own project and less communication, while more hands-on could be a micro-manager. I preferred someone who was a mix. My current adviser was hands on at the beginning, and then gave me the freedom to grow independently with guidance here and there. Competently hands-off never worked for me, but I knew that coming in.
How do you feel about students working away from the lab?
How often do you meet with your students? - Do they have meetings on the weekends? I knew of one adviser that had lab meetings on Sundays. That is my recharge day, so I knew it wasn't going to fly with me. Also ask the graduate students how often the professor likes to meet with them? Is it once a week or once a year?
A great adviser will be invested in your success both in and outside of the lab. This means different things to different people. At the beginning of my PhD journey I was really concerned with career development. This meant I wanted to tap into my adviser’s existing network of scholars, while having the freedom and support to attend career development workshops and seminars. Some questions that can highlight their investment in your success outside of the lab are as follows:
Do you support students presenting work at conferences? - This is how you establish yourself as a researcher and network with potential colleagues.
How do you feel about students participating in professional development opportunities?
How would you feel if I took one summer to do an internship, or study abroad?
A great adviser will be someone that does not hold students from graduation. Unfortunately some professors view graduate students as cheap labor instead of budding colleagues, meaning they are not concerned with graduating you quickly.
How long does it typically take students to graduate? - For this question it is good to know the average in your field. If the adviser's typical graduation rate is much higher than the average in your field this is probably not a good sign. In Industrial Engineering the average is 5 years. I told my adviser I really wanted to graduate in 4 years and she said, "It will be a lot of work, but it is possible." I took this as a good sign. You should also ask this question to the professors's graduate students.
A great adviser will have a way to support you, or be working towards that. One student told me that she heard it was a bad idea to ask about money. My response was, "you have to get paid to live, and your number 1 priority should be living. If they don't have money to support you then it probably wasn't meant to be." That is my opinion, because I have never been a fan of loans or debt when there are so many programs and fellowship opportunities out there. If the professor is not able to fund you then you can also write a fellowship application to try to secure your own funding.
Where would my funding come from? - In STEM it is very uncommon for people to take out loans. Ideally you want a fellowship, research assistant-ship (RA), or teaching assistant-ship (TA).
What support mechanisms are there for graduate students financially?
Would you review the fellowships I wrote? - This applies to those that want to apply for outside fellowships like NSF Graduate Research Fellowship or the Ford Foundation Fellowship. If they say yes and the adviser actually takes the time to review the fellowship application, this is a great sign!
The above questions should help reveal what type of supervisor you will be working with in whichever lab you choose to join. In general, I find that it is best if you ask yourself what you really want out of the PhD and try to find someone who will help you get there. For all advisers, I find that you can find someone who excels at 2 out of 3 things at most:
Knowledge Powerhouse: They know your field really well and they are up to date on current research. Often they were the leader in some theoretical work.
Mentor: Someone that will guide you through career development and keep your best interest at heart.
Network: This person knows more people than you could ever imagine, and their reputation makes them well respected.
Each category has its strengths and weakness, and your ideal adviser will ultimately depend on you.
Outside of the questions above there are a few more things to consider like:
Do you want to work in a big or small group. Normally very high profile advisers have larger groups, which means you probably won't get as much individual time as someone who has 2-3 PhD students.
Where do students typically go after they graduate? Are all of the students going to academia or industry? Is the adviser supportive of both options?
Could you develop a social group in the area? To determine the answer to this question while on a campus visit I asked the graduate students, "What do you like to do for fun?" If they can't say anything or look at you like you are stupid I suggest you run. Run as fast as you can! This can signal a high stress research environment, or lack of community.
Are they communicative? If you e-mail them, how long does it take for them to e-mail you back? If you haven't heard from them in over a week this could be a sign that they don't respond quickly, which might mean slow turn around times for project feedback.
Hopefully, this can help illuminate the adviser who will help you on your path to success. While you are PhD-ing It there will be many factors that can cause you to stumble...the adviser shouldn't be one of them. Best of luck on your journey! If you like this blog post please consider subscribing below so that you never miss an update.
Note about the author: Destenie Nock is a 4th-year PhD Candidate in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She will defend her dissertation on March 18th. Her adviser constantly pushes her to be her best self, so a big thanks goes out to Dr. Baker! In her free time she likes to play tennis, cook with friends, paint, and make to-do lists.