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Make the Most of your Graduate School Experience: Select the Right Advisor


Dr. Danny M. D’Amore, Associate Editor

November 2020

How do you choose a graduate advisor?

While a very basic question, selecting the appropriate academic advisor can inform the experience you have throughout your academic training. Though the niche details may vary from discipline to discipline, there are a few key areas to consider: research program and future interests, mentoring style, research funding, and credentials.

The hard truth: the most illustrious researcher within a department is not guaranteed to be your best match.

Remember, like you, these individuals have their own research interests, including both on-going projects and avenues they might be interested in. Some advisors might be very hands-off, where you might flourish in a laboratory with a more involved mentor. Perhaps they require students to have individual funding or expect specific credentials. So, where do you start?

Research programs (current and future): One of the first steps to finding potential advisors is to locate individuals who have similar interests to your own. It is important to realize, however, that you do not have to be a perfect match. The next step is to reach out through email (or in person, if that is available to you) to express your interest. Most researchers are interested in expanding their program, so find out if their next steps align with your ideas.

Mentoring style: Arguably more important than the research program is mentoring style. First, it is important to be honest with yourself. Ask the following questions: will you be happier with an advisor who is hands-off, or one who checks in on you frequently? Will you be able to manage your time and productivity without assistance, or is involved guidance going to make graduate school less stressful for you? Completing a thesis or dissertation is hard work on its own; thus, finding someone who can support you will make your experience a little less stressful and a little more enjoyable.

Credentials: Importantly, make sure your advisor has the credentials to teach you what you want to know. If you do not want to pursue academia after graduating with your degree, it can be very helpful to have an advisor who has experience in your field, or has successfully mentored other students on a similar track. In addition, ensure that you are able to provide your credentials to a desired advisor; if you are doing your research a year or two ahead of time (first of all, good job!), you might be able to take on specific projects or classwork to become a stronger applicant.

Research funding: Finally, do not forget to ensure the laboratory or department can support you. Sometimes, a researcher will have grant funding to support one (or several) graduate students. If not, you can often find support through the university itself, as most institutions support graduate students through teaching assistantships or internal awards. You can also write a grant yourself; programs such as the National Science Foundation and Fulbright support individual research proposals.

One more piece of advice: take your time when choosing your advisor – when you attend interviews, make sure they are not one way. In other words, ask questions that are important to you. Talk to current or past graduate students. Investigate the graduate program at the school. Give yourself time afterwards to consider what is important to you, and which individual you think will ensure the best working relationship. Remember, you will spend a period of your life on this project and working with this person, so consider your own needs and make sure you get what you require from your graduate school experience.

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