Choosing an advisor or mentor in graduate school

One of the most common things students ask is how to choose a topic for their research, which I will cover in a separate blog post.  I think a more important, but almost never asked question, is “How do I choose an advisor/mentor in graduate school?

How do I choose an advisor/mentor in graduate school?

Choosing an advisor or mentor for your graduate school research is perhaps the most important and consequential decision of your life. Unfortunately, this question is hardly ever asked or even considered.

There are two main things to consider when choosing an advisor. First, know what to look for in an advisor. Once you select someone, understand how to approach that person to maximize your chances of them agreeing to become your advisor.

Here are some attributes of the ideal advisor. It may be impossible to find a person that meets all the criteria, so look for someone who matches the ones that are most important to you. 

They work in an area you like

Most faculty members are very focused on their specific research topic and will be largely unwilling to change directions to accommodate the special interests of a student. Even if you find a faculty member that is willing to take on a new topic, they will likely not be funded in that area, have no reputation, and they may not be able to advise you as well as as someone who is an expert in that area.

Someone full of energy and motivation

Passion is contagious, but so is lethargy. Your ideal advisor will have a positive attitude and plenty of energy to attack your topic with passion and stamina. An energetic faculty will be more likely to secure external funding to pay you a salary and cover research expenses. They are also more likely to spend more time mentoring and coaching you.

A rising star

The ideal faculty member is a rising star in their field. This will ensure you have many years ahead of you that your advisor can secure funding, help find you jobs, and help you build your professional network. An advisor who has a strong reputation in an area will transfer some of that reputation to you, aiding in your career development.

Someone who is well funded and publishes frequently

Sure signs of a productive researcher are being well funded and publishing regularly. This is important so you do not become stagnated and your work is significant enough to be worthy of a graduate degree. You will have a higher chance of being paid a salary and having your research expenses covered for you.

Has a well-equipped lab and experienced students

To accomplish graduate level research, you need resources and training. A well-equipped lab will have the resources you need to accomplish your research. Having more experienced students around will help you get training. Faculty members have a lot of demands on their time, much of which is outside of mentoring students. It is a mistake to rely on your advisor for 100% of your training and common research needs. Instead, lean on the more experienced students working under that faculty to help get training and address your research needs. When you become the more experienced student, please reach out to help the new people!

Liked and respected by others

A faculty member that is well liked and well connected around campus will get more favor from the administration and other faculty. This may include additional lab space, connection to funding opportunities, access to equipment and resources, working around the rules to help students in awkward situations, and more.

Has a strong and positive reputation

A advisor with a strong reputation and who is well-connected in industry can help you grow your professional network. They can make introductions and put a good word in for you at potential job opportunities. Additionally, a faculty’s reputation transfers a bit to their students. This could get you attention from people or jobs that would otherwise ignore you.

They offer holistic training to their students

Your advisor should do much more for you than give you a research project. They should train you how to do research, show you how to work through problems, make introductions, coach you through writing papers and presenting your work, help you find a job, negotiate salary, and more. The ideal advisor will have more activities going on in their lab than just research. Look for research groups where the students are a bit happier and more successful than students in other groups. They likely have this type of advisor.

A good personality fit with you

You may find a wonderful faculty member in all regards, but you just do not get along with them. A good personality fit with your advisor is very important. You will be working very closely with them and relying on them for multiple years.

I have chosen a potential advisor, how should I approach them?

Whatever you do, do not let the first words out of your mouth be to ask if they have a research position available! It is very likely they will politely say no.

Taking on a new student is a HUGE commitment and risk for a faculty member. You are asking them to obligate years of their life and career to you. They likely do not know you, how passionately or hard you may work on your research, or if you are a good personality fit for their team. Additionally, they also have to consider whether they have funding available to pay you a salary.  Taking on an unknown student is a very high risk for a faculty member, and approaching them out of the blue for a research position puts them in an awkward position. Their easy way out is to simply say “No, I don’t have anything right now.”

The right approach is to get yourself on that faculty’s list of students to hire when they do have an opportunity. You need to prove yourself to them first. Learn about that faculty and member and their research. Read their papers and website. Identify what tools and methods they use for their research. Learn whatever of these you can on your own.

Instead of first asking for a research position, talk with them about what it is like to work in their area. Ask a technical question about their research. Demonstrate passion and interest, which indirectly tells them you are looking for opportunities to work in their area without putting them in that awkward position. Faculty generally love to talk about themselves and their research, so you have a near 100% chance of getting that meeting. Later on, you could ask to volunteer in their lab  – but only after you have done your research and have the beginnings of a good relationship with that faculty. Showing your interest and effort will quickly land you on that faculty’s shortlist to take on as a new Research Assistant

Check out my video on choosing the right advisor/mentor:

More resources for the graduate student:

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