What’s at stake?

Choosing a Ph.D. advisor is a big decision. A good advisor will provide you with steady funding, teach you new skills, bring out your best, and coach you toward your future career. Both you and your advisor usually only have one chance to pick correctly and switching can be a big setback for you. This short guide, which discusses five aspects to consider when picking an advisor, is intended to help you make the right choice.

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Funding

An advisor’s foremost responsibility is to provide you with the funding and equipment you need to perform the research that forms the basis for your Ph.D. A teaching assistantship is a good experience for a semester or two, but your research productivity will be drastically reduced if you’re required to teach each semester. Look for an advisor who has a funded project in need of a student. A good place to start is by consulting the research matrices provided under each research focus area (the focus areas are found in the slider above) and looking at the specific areas the faculty is actively interested in. Once you narrow down the faculty that could be a good match, consult their website to see the topics they are focusing on at the moment.

It is also important to ask about funding history—has your potential advisor demonstrated with previous students that he or she can provide steady support for five years? Often assistant professors don’t have such a history, but, nevertheless, young professors are particularly hungry to chase down funding and establish their groups.

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Future Prospects

You probably aren’t thinking about life after your Ph.D. before you’ve even started, but your research group has a substantial impact on your future prospects. While few doctoral students end up working on the exact same topic as their dissertation post-graduation, they often find success in a related field. If you intend to enter industry, aim to gain skills during your Ph.D. that you can use afterwards. What can your advisor teach you outside of the classroom? If you think you may want to pursue an academic career, focus on publications and presentations. Your advisor’s publication record—to which you will soon contribute—and overall reputation in his or her field can give you a head start on your career. Graduates of renowned professors who, e.g., publish in Science and are editors of top journals, often earn faculty positions at excellent universities.

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Field of Interest

You will spend the next four to six years studying the minutia of the research topic that you and your advisor establish—make sure that it interests you. Ask your advisor to sell you on his or her research. What makes it exciting, worthwhile and relevant? In addition, read the recent literature on the topic (both by your future group and by other groups), especially any review papers you find. Ask whether you will be doing experiments, simulation or both.

The information in the research matrices for each research area is a good place to start, but once you’ve narrowed down to a set of topics and faculty that may be a good match, you should dig deeper in their current profiles and inquire about a position only if you are interested in the research you would likely be doing.
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Professional Relationship

Make sure that you can communicate effectively with your future advisor, and that you are comfortable being vulnerable in his or her presence (e.g., when asking a “stupid” question). Seek an advisor who cares about your education and welfare, and encourages your success.

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Managing Expectations

You and your advisor should share similar expectations for your Ph.D. tenure. Find out how many papers you are expected to publish, if you must obtain a master’s degree before earning your Ph.D., whether you will present at weekly meetings, and if you must perform other services (e.g., maintaining equipment or advising undergraduates). Advisors and students can customize the Ph.D. experience in a variety of ways, just ensure that you understand and are comfortable with what is expected of you. Ask if students in the group are regularly sent to conferences to present their research. Conferences are an important opportunity for you to meet experts in your field and establish collaborations.

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Give it a try

The first time you meet with your potential advisor, ask for copies of his or her recent publications. Read up and ask questions the next time you meet. Attend at least one group meeting so you can evaluate the group dynamic. Talk to the professor’s students individually. Assess their competency (they will be your future colleagues) and ask what they like or struggle with about the advisor and resarch group. If possible, contact graduates from the group as well. They will have a broader prospective and can better answer the question: What would you do differently? Ask if a short trial period in the lab is possible. Remember, the professor is invested in making sure it’s a good fit too. It may seem embarrassing to try out a group for a month and then announce that it isn’t right for you, but that’s a lot better for everyone than five years of frustration.

Adapted from “Selecting the right Ph.D. advisor: A guide, by assistant professor Zachary C. Holman.