Finding an Adviser

Applying to grad school means finding a compatible adviser.
01 October 2008
Kristen Carlson Maitland

Finding the right graduate adviser is important for your success in graduate school and your future career. Not only will your choice of adviser affect everything about your life during graduate school, a strong letter of recommendation from your graduate adviser will have a vital impact on your postdoctoral career.

The pairing should be a mutual decision between the student and professor, and there is no easy formula for success.

Fortunately, there are many faculty members who would be excellent matches to your research interests, work style, and personality. Investing some thought and time throughout your graduate school application process now can save you from conflicts and delays in your research later.

Select a Topic

First, select your topic or field of interest and identify potential institutions, departments, and advisers. If a course or a research paper inspired you to pursue a graduate degree, read the literature in that area. Who are the leaders in the field? Who has recent publications? Whose papers are referenced frequently? You want an adviser/committee chair who is knowledgeable, has expertise in your field of interest, and can provide you with solid advice.

If you are not sure about your exact research topic; don't worry. Flexibility is good, and your research project will transform over time anyway. If you want to be less specific about your chosen research topic, you may want to start by identifying universities with highly ranked graduate programs in your field of interest. The institution will be more likely to have a number of well-respected professors, providing a larger number of potential mentors from which to choose. If your first-choice adviser doesn't work out, your "back-up" options will be much better. In addition, students graduating from well-respected departments will have the advantage of being associated with the department's reputation.

Compare Styles

Second, think about what you are looking for in an adviser. Are you self-motivated and independent, or do you need structure and guidance? Are you agreeable to working more closely with post-docs and senior students, or do you prefer working one-on-one with your faculty adviser in the laboratory?

Would you prefer a large or small research group? Do you perform better with a supervisor who is encouraging or challenging? What is your work style? Do you expect to work in the laboratory only 40 hours a week? Or are you willing to work day and night to accomplish your research goals as soon as possible?

Are you interested in theoretical or experimental research? Are you planning to pursue a career in academia or industry after you complete your degree?

There are pros and cons to working with an associate or full professor (tenured) or an assistant professor. In general, a tenured professor has more experience advising students and is more well-known in the field, which can be helpful in pursuing job opportunities following graduation. However, working with an assistant professor, you will likely have more one-on-one contact with your adviser, be part of a smaller research group, and possibly gain experience setting up a research laboratory. Also, assistant professors are highly invested in each student, since the success of their first students is instrumental to their own success.

Reach Out Early

Third, once you have identified graduate programs and potential advisers, begin to communicate with them before you submit your grad school application. Do your homework first. Read through their research Web sites and publications so you are prepared to ask intelligent questions about their research. E-mail your resume and present your qualifications and reasons why you are interested in working with them. Discuss which projects you are interested in working on, but be flexible.

Through all of your correspondence, present yourself as organized, competent, and self-motivated. In your statement of purpose, specifically identify the professor or professors whose research groups you are interested in joining.

Interview Professors

Fourth, before deciding on an adviser, visit the professors on your "short list," tour their research labs, and meet their current students. If you are unable to visit the campus, arrange a time to speak on the phone.

This is your opportunity to "interview" the professors and their labs (but avoid making them feel like you are interrogating them). Some questions are more appropriately asked of the professor, some of their students, and some should be asked of both, comparing answers from students and the professor.

Does the professor have specific projects that he or she wants you to work on? How many students are working in the lab? What is the average time for students to attain MS and/or PhD degrees? What is a typical student's work week like? Does the professor work directly with the students in the laboratory? What is the frequency and duration of one-on-one and large-group meetings? What are the standards and expectations for graduation—number of papers? How many and which conferences do students attend each year? Does the adviser work closely with students in their career search? Where do most graduates go— academia or industry—and which institutions?

During the "interviews," did the professor and students make time for you? Were they responsive to your research interests? Were the students' research projects well-defined? Did the students seem happy and enthusiastic about their research?

During your graduate application process, you should be in communication with multiple potential advisers at different institutions, so that you have a wide array of options. You should be able to find a graduate adviser you will respect technically and personally and with whom you have interpersonal rapport.

Adviser Is Factor in Success

With some time and effort before entering into this relationship, you should be able to gather sufficient information to select the ideal mentor to suit your research interests, work style, and personality. Although your success in grad school is ultimately your responsibility, the right graduate adviser can be a significant facilitator.

Grad Student Makes Three Common Mistakes

Fidel G. Fernandez, senior academic adviser in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Texas A&M University, urges grad students to avoid the common mistakes made by a grad student named Diego.

First, Diego chose a graduate program based on the reputation of the university, in much the same way he had chosen his undergraduate program, instead of whether the university had the research program he needed.

Next, Diego chose his eventual committee chair based on the individual's position as the department head rather than for his research compatibility. Diego mistakenly assumed that having a department head on his committee would prove helpful to him later.

Third, Diego and his chair had mismatched research interests. So Diego had to put aside his own research interests and instead work in an area he found to be tedious and boring. This led Diego to drag his feet, and he took the entire 10-year allotment to complete his dissertation. After graduation, he and his chair parted ways.

Leadership Series

Find this article and others about leadership in optics and photonics at

Kristen Carlson Maitland is an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Texas A&M University. She received her PhD in biomedical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and her BS and MS degrees in electrical engineering from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. A PDF of this article is available.

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