How to Select a Graduate Research Advisor

If you attend a doctoral program, you’ll absolutely need a research advisor – someone to guide you along the way in your research activities and help train you to become an independent scholar.

Even if you are headed to a master’s program, a research advisor can be a valuable asset, particularly if your eventual goal is to get into a doctoral program.  Many doctoral and master’s students are assigned an advisor, but many more are presented with a myriad of choices and are baffled at how to go about selecting one.

Here’s some advice for selecting a research advisor in graduate school.  (This advice is primarily applicable to doctoral students, but master’s and professional students should find these suggestions useful, too.)

How to select a graduate research advisor

What is a Research Advisor?

An advisor is a professor who is largely responsible for your progress through the program.  In the early stages, they will help you select classes and get started on you first research tasks.  Towards the end, they will most likely become the chair or sponsor of your dissertation committee, and guide you in the process of conducting the dissertation. 

They will also shepherd you through the research process and encourage you to present at conferences and publish papers in journals in your field.  Less tangibly, through word and deed they will educate you on the conventions of your field, and if things work out, their networks will become your networks. 

Through word and deed your advisor will educate you on the conventions of your field, and if things work out, their networks will become your networks. 

They may assist you in getting a postdoc and/or a final position (within academia or without), and they will be the person writing your letters of recommendation for jobs and funding. Needless to say, advisors have a huge impact on the trajectory of your career, so it’s important to select wisely! 

I like to group advisor characteristics into three main buckets:

  1. Research interests and projects
  2. Professional qualities and characteristics
  3. Personality factors

Each is very important, but each individual student needs to decide which bucket(s) are most important to them.


Research Interests and Projects

One of the primary concerns of an advisor is to select someone whose research interests are similar to yours.  Particularly in the sciences and social sciences, an early doctoral student may work on their advisor’s research project(s) until they get their own projects up and running.  Their final dissertation project and many of their papers will likely be based largely upon projects their advisor has available.

The key here is to find someone who has interests that are similar to yours – but they don’t have to match exactly.  In fact, they should not match exactly; if someone senior to you is already doing exactly what you want to do, you haven’t found an untapped research niche and you need to redirect a little. 

It’s also very likely that your interests will morph throughout graduate school, so you need to find someone with a broad knowledge base who can help guide you as you grow as a researcher.  Another potentially important issue is funding; in many programs, the advisor is primarily responsible for your stipend and tuition coverage, so you’d need to find an advisor who has an active grant with a line item for an RA or other suitable position.

If you are not yet in grad school, you can find this person by reading intriguing scientific journal articles in your field and noting authors who appear often in your reading list; by perusing the websites of graduate programs in which you are interested, and reading the project and research descriptions there (although they are sometimes a bit out of date); and by perhaps attending some national or regional conferences and meeting with presenters who have interesting presentations.  To find about funding status, you can use tools like NIH RePORTER or the NSF Award Search to see if a professor you are interested in has an active grant.

If you are already in graduate school – go talk to the professors in your department!  Attend brown bags and colloquia to hear what your professors are doing, and take their classes. 

Some science programs have lab rotations that allow you to work with 2-3 people on a trial basis.  If not, don’t be afraid to set up short meetings with professors in your department to learn more about their work. 

However, do your due diligence: read their most recent articles and talk to their current grad students to get an idea of on what they are currently working on.


Professional Qualities and Characteristics

After considering research interests, think about the professional qualities of a potential advisor.  An advisor’s position in the field and approach they take towards the field can have a large impact on the way you work with them and your own prospects on the job market.

Take into account their research productivity: how much have they published in the last few years?  Do they have grant funding?  Are their research labs well-appointed?  You can also try to evaluate the extensiveness of their networks. 

Do they know other people in the field – people that you might want a job or postdoc with someday?  Are they generally well-regarded in your area? 

Do they regularly attend conferences and other professional development activities? 

This may be difficult to judge ahead of time, but asking one of their current grad students can help.

It also helps to assess your potential advisor’s standing in the department.  When you attend departmental events, casually observe their interactions with their colleagues and with other grad students.  Do they show up to things?  Are they generally well-regarded in the department?  Do they have issues or conflicts with many other professors or people who might later serve on your committee? 

An advisor who gets along with their peers is an advisor that can grease the wheels for you if you have issues during the course of your program.


Personality Characteristics

Many graduate students do not consider personality characteristics when selecting an advisor – they assume that if the research interest is there, they will be able to work with the person.  This is not so.  In fact, in some cases it may be a better idea to work with someone with a weaker fit but who has a personality more compatible with yours. 

This is information that is best gleaned from current graduate students!  However, much of this can also be subtly picked up during a brief meeting with a professor to assess research fit.

For this step, you need to evaluate your own needs and desires.  What is your approach to your work – more 9-to-5, or any time?  Do you want to be a superstar who works 80 hour weeks?  Many professors are themselves workaholics, and they will expect you to push yourself to their limit – sometimes forgoing social and personal concerns to do so. 

Other professors have a better work-life balance and will encourage the same from you.  You need to find an advisor whose outlook fits yours.

Are you independent and self-motivated or would you like a little more guidance (at least in the beginning)?  Some advisors have a more hands-on style of mentoring, giving their students research projects on which to work, meeting with them more often and directing their analyses. 

Others take a much more hands-off approach, allowing students to explore and find their own way while being generally available for guidance and advice.  Finding someone who matches your own preference will make life easier.

Your research advisor has significant influence on your career – as well as a big impact on your experience during your graduate career.  It’s important to consider the choice carefully and find an advisor who fits you both professionally and personally. 

If chosen correctly, however, your advisor can become a trusted mentor – and friend – for many years to come.

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