Choosing a Graduate Advisor

You found a great program for your Ph.D.! The school has a good reputation and your prospective graduate advisor is very well-known in the field. Everyone knows about her and about her work, which has a solid reputation. Best of all, she has agreed to supervise your graduate studies! What could possibly go wrong?

Well, she might turn out to be a great graduate advisor and mentor... but then again, she might not. The fact that she does brilliant and influential work does not guarantee that she will be a good graduate advisor. It does not predict that she will be available to her students, or that the advice she gives them will be good, that her feedback will be useful, or that she even cares about the needs of her students and the quality of the training they receive. But then again, it does not predict otherwise, either. She might be an excellent graduate advisor.

Most graduate students, especially those in research-based programs, depend on their graduate advisor (or supervisor) for essential guidance and mentoring throughout graduate school. It is important for prospective grad students to realize that their ultimate success may depend on how much professional guidance and moral support they get from this person. Students should give significant consideration to this when searching for potential graduate advisors. Yet, most will consider very little beyond the person’s research accomplishments, or details about how the area of expertise matches the interests of the student. That match is necessary, of course, but it is not sufficient to guarantee the student will get what he or she is looking for in terms of training.

Your graduate advisor and your morale

Different faculty members have different ways of dealing with their graduate students. Some are excellent at meeting their students’ needs, and make indispensable contributions to a student’s successes and general morale. There are also outstanding students who excel despite receiving little support from their graduate advisors, but those students are relatively rare (and although successful, that does not mean they enjoyed the way they got there). There are many other students who are unsuccessful but who undoubtedly would have done better if not for the poor support and direction they received from their graduate advisor.

It is important to note that university professors are generally not held accountable for incompetent or irresponsible supervision of graduate students. Depending on the academic department and the particular university, a faculty member might benefit in tangible ways from having a large number of graduate students under their supervision (aside from the obvious benefit of having several people helping with their research). For example, the obligation to teach undergraduate classes may be reduced if they supervise more than a few graduate students. Meanwhile, there are usually few if any negative repurcussions for faculty members who take on more graduate students than they can properly support and supervise, or for those who simply provide poor support and guidance to their graduate students. No wonder there are some people out there with faculty positions who take advantage of the opportunity to supervise graduate students, but who put little or no effort into doing a decent job of it.

It is exceedingly important that your advisor is someone you can get along with. Not everyone who starts graduate school will finish. Drop-out rates may not be high, but every year thousands quit short of obtaining their degrees. This happens for various reasons, but interpersonal problems between the student and the graduate advisor are behind a large proportion of grad school drop-outs. Few things are more miserable than working with someone you dislike. To avoid it, many new graduate students quit their studies during their first year, or else they decide to change supervisors part way through the program, which can increase the total time to graduation.

Although there is no typical graduate advisor, there are a few stereotypes concerning some of the less-desirable advisor types. In fact, most people in the academic world will readily recognize them as corresponding to certain individuals they know. A few are depicted in the following passages.

You help them, but will they help you?

Watch out for the faculty member who spends more time managing his own career than looking out for the interests of his students.

Ideally, professors and their graduate students share a symbiotic relationship -- they need each other to accomplish their objectives. It is not an entirely balanced relationship, however. The professor has greater authority, and he or she gets to call most of the shots in terms of the research the student does while in the program. Some professors take advantage of this situation by using their students more as research employees, rather than treating them like genuine students or trainees. You need to be careful of this type of advisor. They will not help you in the long run. They are not really interested in whether you become an expert and have a successful career, so they see no value in spending time to teach you anything beyond what is needed to help them with their work. Its all about their own agenda.

What’s worse is that some of the worst mentors are among the most well-accomplished people in their field! Sometimes these particular faculty members have a relatively large number of graduate students, and the crowd makes it seem like it must be a good place to be. If you look closer, however, you will notice that few, if any, of the students are smiling. This may be a clue that something is wrong with the training conditions, at least from the point of view of the people who are being trained!

Hooking up with a big-shot is no guarantee that things will go well for you. You won’t necessarily have a great career advantage later on if your graduate advisor is well-known in your field. In fact, it can be hard to get noticed for your own original contributions when you are working in the shadows of a luminary.

The suggestion here is not that you should avoid professors who are highly successful and who do brilliant work, but rather that you should not let these factors influence your decision about their desirability as a graduate advisor. Keep focused on what is really important to yourultimate success, which includes having a dependable and supportive graduate advisor who will be there to help you achieve your learning and training objectives.

Avoid the thinly-spread faculty member

Most faculty members care sincerely about their graduate students’ research and professional development, and have the best intentions when undertaking a commitment to supervise, support, and guide the research and professional development of a particular student. This is generally true even among those who are well-known and highly-accomplished. Some fail to deliver on this commitment, however, simply because they are too busy with other commitments.

Some highly-successful professors tend to be off campus or out of town much of the time. When they are in town or on campus, everyone is scrambling for their time. Individual students get very little; hardly the type of relationship where the student is likely to directly benefit from the talents and experiences of the graduate advisor.

Its not that the thinly-spread faculty member doesn’t want to be helpful. Its just that they have too many things going on, and their overcommitment means that they are seldom able to meet with you. If they are able to find a smidgen of time for you, it seldom fits your schedule.

Beware the power-hierarchy

Many research laboratories are full of students and trainees at different levels or stages of training, including, for example, sophomores working as volunteer research assistants, senior undergraduates working on their honors thesis, master’s and doctoral students, and perhaps postdoctoral fellows or research associates who already have a Ph.D.

Sometimes a group such as this will work very well together, and all or most of the people in the lab will get along just fine. The more-experienced people help the less-experienced. This can provide a great training environment for everyone involved, and it can help the graduate advisor do his or her job by spreading around some of the teaching and training of graduate students. Members in this type of group work with each other.

Sometimes, however, the principal investigator (a.k.a. the lab chief) is a professor with a seriously inflated sense of self-importance, and this can be evident in the way the roles of various lab members are laid out. For example, the professor may give a decent amount of his time and attention to the research associates, post-doctoral fellows, and senior Ph.D. students, but less so to the new Ph.D. students or the Master’s students. He hardly ever meets with the undergraduate thesis students, and leaves their supervision entirely up to the graduate students. An undergraduate volunteer does not get to participate in research being done in any meaningful way, and they spend most of their time doing menial tasks, like data entry for a graduate student. The professor at the top of this power-hierarchy may not even know the undergraduate volunteers, and will certainly be in no position to write a useful letter of recommendation for any of them, later on. Members in this type of group seldom really work together, unless it becomes necessary, and are more likely to be competitive amongst themselves rather than cooperative.

To be clear, some students do very well in this type of system. It depends on one’s personality. Someone who does not mind playing politics and is actually good at it, can gain some advantages on a “team” that operates this way. But if you are someone who prefers to work on a team where everyone is a bit more equal, understand that there are faculty members out there who work with their students that way. And their graduate students tend to be smiling, at the same time as they are accomplishing their goals.

Pay a personal visit if, at all possible

Its not necessary to visit a graduate school in order to find out about the current research interests of its faculty members. You can find almost everything you need to know about what a person does, and from that information you can make reasonable guesses about it would mean for your own research options as a graduate student.

But a personal visit will be your best opportunity to find out about several other aspects of what it would be like to be a graduate student there, including the way a particular faculty member works with his or her students. If you have never before met your potential graduate advisor, meeting that person face-to-face might go a long way toward indicating whether or not the two of you are compatible. Students should make every effort to arrange this kind of visit to potential graduate schools that interest them the most.

Its easy to see how meeting a potential graduate advisor could help you decide whether you will actually like that person. But, how do you find out other important things about your potential graduate advisors, like their mentoring and management styles? Ask those who know best; their current graduate students.

If you do make a personal visit, you should give at least as much attention to arranging to meet with graduate students as you do to meeting the faculty members in whom you are interested. The graduate students will be the best source of information about what it is like to be in the program.

But a word of caution: Do not jump to conclusions just because a group of students you meet who work with the same professor all seem a bit cranky. Scratch beneath the surface if you can. Perhaps one of the graduate students will be willing to speak frankly. Find out as much as you can about what it is like to be a graduate student there. You must be careful, however, not to put too much stock into the reports of only a single graduate student. Talk to several of them and look for points of general consensus. The danger in speaking with only one or two is that their attitudes and opinions may not be representative of the majority of students in that program, or of the majority of those working with the particular faculty member in question.

Use your intuition, but also look for other warning signs that there may be problems with the way this faculty member deals with graduate students. Has a significant proportion of this person’s previous graduate students either quit the program without finishing or changed to a different advisor part way through? What type of career outcomes have been experienced by this person’s previous graduate students. Of course, graduate advisors are not entirely responsible for the career success of their students, but they can make a big difference. A good graduate advisor should mentor students in the development of appropriate professional skills, career development, and networking opportunities with colleagues in academia and beyond.

Granted, this kind of history might not be easy to discover. After all, you can’t exactly ask professors directly whether their previous graduate students were adequately supervised (or at least, you should not ask such a bold question). This is another area of investigation where current graduate students can often help, but you might get a more complete picture of what has happened in the past by talking to others in the department who have been around longer. The best person to ask about this type of thing is usually the graduate program director.

Finally, an exceptional step that one could take in order to find out about a faculty member’s management and mentoring style is to contact one or more of that person’s former graduate students. The easiest ways to figure out who these people are is to look for co-authors on the professor’s previously published work. There is a good chance that one or more of the co-authors are former graduate students of this professor. Such things can usually be confirmed or disconfirmed through a bit of detective work on the Web. Google the co-author’s names and find out where they are now. If you can track down someone’s email address, use that to send them a polite request for information about the management style of their former graduate advisor. Former graduate students may be more frank with you than current students are, and they may know about episodes that occurred in the more distant past.

Whatever you do, do not settle for mediocre supervision or inadequate support, it will most likely lead to disappointment and frustration about the entire experience of being a graduate student. There are many research programs and even more potential supervisors out there. Keep looking and keep asking questions.

For more advice about choosing the right graduate supervisor, including strategies you can use to make a decision when you can’t visit the University or College beforehand, preview eChapter 4 – Making the Right Choices


This article was provided by Dave G. Mumby, Ph.D. Author of the book:

Graduate School: Winning Strategies for Getting In With or Without Excellent Grades

Copyright Â©1997-2004

For more information about applying to graduate or professional school, check out the eBook

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