What should you look for when choosing an advisor?
At the end of my second year at MIT, I chose to switch to a different advisor, based on our overlapping interests in a specific research area. This turned out to be a great decision, but for many reasons that I hadn’t even remotely thought about when I made the choice. I’m very conscious now that I could just as easily have made a terrible decision without thinking, so I want to talk about good advising practices and factors that other students should consider if they are making the same decision.
Let’s get the obvious factors out of the way: it goes without saying that working on a project that you are interested in is very important, especially for a PhD. Funding is another important part of the decision, but hardly something that you are likely to overlook. Finally, some professors have a reputation within their departments; if you have heard about a professor’s difficult personality, you may already know who you wish to avoid.
Finding an advising style that works for you will have significant effects on your grad school experience. Some advisors hold large meetings of their entire research groups every week, while others prefer to meet individually or with smaller project-based groups. Some faculty members spend a lot more time away on travel than others, or take sabbaticals from MIT but continue to carry out some supervision remotely. This can affect how often you see your advisor. If you’re a procrastinator, you might decide it’s a better idea to work with a professor who can check in with you a couple of times a week, whereas if you hate being micromanaged, then perhaps you’d be better off meeting once or twice a month for longer updates. I fall somewhere in between, preferring to have a recurring weekly meeting alongside the ability to pop into my advisor’s office to clarify quick questions as needed.
The culture of the lab that you join will define much of your day-to-day life as a grad student. After all, these are the people with whom you will share office space, take classes, and spend most of your working hours for the next few years. Some labs expect their students to be physically present from 9 to 5 Monday-Friday (or even later…), while others are much more flexible as long as deadlines are met. Different labs can also be noticeably more or less social. I appreciate the fact that my lab occasionally conducts ‘lab pub hour’ at the Muddy Charles Pub, as it’s a perfect way to catch up with one another in a more informal setting.
One of the most important factors for me was a realization that my PhD advisor is a great advocate for his students, both inside and outside the department. If one of us is having personal issues, or a problem with a class, or is struggling to fulfill departmental requirements, he will help both in talking through it and in representing us to the department. He is also good at using his network, inviting his students to meet campus visitors who are senior figures in industry or government, introducing us to potentially useful connections within our field, and sending all kinds of emails to help us find internships.
Although there is an undergraduate advising award in my department, the Graduate Association of AeroAstro (GA^3) has only recently begun to discuss creating a graduate equivalent. As we start to consider how to benchmark good advising practices to create a standard for all students, I realize how many factors I should have considered when I was choosing an advisor, and thankfully, how well the decision worked out for me nonetheless.
At the end of the day, finding an advisor you will work well with is a very individual process. Although everyone has different priorities, there are many factors which undoubtedly affect all grad students. As such, it is prudent to research these in more detail than I did before you make a choice!
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