Finding a PhD Faculty Advisor

A guide to selecting the right faculty advisor

What’s at stake?

Choosing a PhD 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.

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

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Funding and field of interest

Look for an advisor who has a funded project in need of a student. 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.

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.

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Professional relationship and managing expectations

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).

You and your advisor should share similar expectations for your PhD tenure. Find out how many papers you are expected to publish, if you must obtain a master’s degree before earning your PhD, whether you will present at weekly meetings, and if you must perform other services (e.g., maintaining equipment or advising undergraduates).

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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 PhD that you can use afterwards.

The first time you meet with your potential advisor, ask for copies of his or her recent publications, meet with current students, and attend a group meeting if possible.