Are you my advisor?

Ok, great news!  You’ve figured out you want to go to graduate school (thanks to this post here) and you have decided on your degree (MS vs PhD).

Now the question is: who will you work with? Graduate school is different from undergraduate in that where you go isn’t nearly as important as who you work with.

A good advisor will increase your number of publications, assist you in avoiding going too far into debt, and generally make your life better. So before you sign up for this person to be a critical, and intrusive part of your life for the next 4-10 years  (there are many people who spend a really long time in graduate school), here are some things to consider.

  1. Do you want a big lab or a small lab? A big lab means your advisor will be splitting his/her time between you and the 10+ other graduate students and postdocs in the lab. This can mean that you’ll have a good community of peers (and suffering together makes your bonds closer, remember), and you might get more help overall. Conversely, a small lab means your advisor spends more time with you. If you want a lot of attention and time from your advisor, fewer other people in the lab might be ideal.  But if you’ve got a problem with authority, or are nervous in front of your advisor,  this might result in problems. There is no right answer to this question, it really is personal preference. But it’s something you need to think through before you seek out an advisor.
  2. What is the funding situation? This is one of those things you need to ask up front, and means more than YOUR funding situation. If you are not independently wealthy, and are seeking financial assistance to complete graduation school, you need to gather critical information.  Are you going to have to teach every semester? If you love teaching and want to inspire young minds, this might be good, but keep in mind, every hour prepping for class, teaching class, and having student office hours is time not doing your primary research. So teaching at lot will likely affect how long it will take you to get your PhD. Are you going to get paid during the summer? Are there opportunities for you to get funded (grants in progress), or does your advisor already have money (multi-year research grant)? Not only are these important for your PhD (having to take a second job really cuts into your PhD time) but also for your future (being in debt forever really sucks).
  3. Are the current and former students of the advisor happy/satisfied/graduated? This one is key. If you want to know what an advisor is like, ask his students. Don’t limit yourself to just the students currently in the lab (especially if they are new), but ask the older students. And the recently graduated. Honestly, towards the end of my PhD, my friend Bobbi and I stopped being invited to the recruitment events… because the department wasn’t wild about the new students seeing how much we were suffering. But these are the people you want to talk to. They will give you the honest opinion on the things the advisor is bad at. And here’s an important point: EVERY ADVISOR IS BAD AT SOMETHING. You need to figure out if their “bad something” is a thing you don’t care about, or things that you actually like/require in an advisor.

Pick someone who is right for you. There are a lot of advisor-advisee interactions that make a  graduate student successful.  An advisor that someone else had difficulty with may be ideal for you, your personality, your interests, and your work ethic.  That’s why the big lab vs. small lab, and the qualities of the advisor are so important. Picking a person who is a really good scientist, but not a good fit for you is going to end up difficult for everyone involved.