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Choosing a Research Advisor

It is mid-August or so, and you have just arrived at your next educational home. This will be probably the most intense semester of your life, but it will only be about 3-1/2 months long. In that time, you will become acclimated to a new city, a new school, a new type of class (graduate classes tend to either be much easier or much harder than undergrad classes), probably teaching in some capacity for the first time, and finally, choosing the individual who will probably shape your career more than anyone else, your research advisor.

In adademia, we speak of the string of PhD advsiors as a genealogy. We have a series of professional ancestors that lead back to a few, usually well-known pioneers in our field. (I discuss mine here.) So choosing your advisor is very much like choosing a parent. Choose wisely.

It is crucial to pick the advisor rather than the research project. What I mean is you should examine carefully the professional and personal worldview and values to be a match with yours. In other words:
-          If you are a laid-back type of person, don’t pick an advisor gunning to win the Nobel Prize next week, and vice versa.
-          Similarly, if you are pretty independent, you don’t want an advisor that is always looking over your shoulder, and vice versa—if you need lots of guidance, you don’t want someone whom you will see maybe once a semester.
-          Look at their life-work balance and see if it is something that appeals to you.
-          How long on average does it take for their students to graduate? If students tend to take6-7 years, then you probably want to stay away, as this faculty member probably tends to hold onto their students to benefit from experienced, cheap labor. Faculty members who push people out in 4-5 years usually are more concerned with developing your career and keeping it moving and will give you a swift kick start if you seem to be stagnating.
-          And so on. This is not an exhaustive list, but some key things that will help you get started. In my use of ‘worldview,’ I am not necessarily in this context describing their religious views. That is probably less important. Choose someone who will mentor you to be an excellent independent researcher, and in a way that you can get along with them.

What about the tenure status of a faculty member? That depends, largely on what you want. A young assistant professor can be beneficial, helping you to rise on their coattails as their career is in its ascendency. However, if they prove a bust, you’ve got the problem of being tied to their failure. If they don’t get tenure for less dramatic issues, most schools will not leave you in the lurch. Most faculty have a year or so to search for a new position and close down shop, including getting you through. If that is not enough time, you may be allowed to move with that advisor or be reassigned to another faculty member to complete your work (if you are just starting, you may have to switch projects.) If you work for someone at the end of their career, they are a known quantity, but you have to watch carefully to see how engaged they still are in the process, as they may be mentally moving on to the next phase of life. A mid-career advisor is usually pretty stable, though they may be recruited to another school, in which case, your situation will look a lot like the failed-tenure case, though not as bad.

I insist on choosing the advisor over the project for several related reasons. First, a good relationship with your boss can make nearly any research project worthwhile, whereas a bad relationship can make the most exciting and promising project sheer misery, even to the point of not being worth it. Second, your advisor is your primary professional reference for the rest of your career, so you want to have the kind of relationship that will produce good reports from them. Your name will be tied with theirs within the academic community, so make sure you want that association.

Follow this advice even if you end up working in a group that doesn’t do exactly what you ultimately want to do. The training is the key, not the project. Especially these days, while they Ph.D. research will greatly shape the beginning of your career, it need not define it. Many academics will drift through a variety of research areas, sometimes radically, so you are not locked in. Also, if a real jerk is the best in the area about which you are passionate, you can always seek out a post-doc with them. There, it can still be miserable/uncomfortable if they are a jerk, but it is for a much shorter period of time, you are more nearly a peer (though that is not necessarily a guarantee of good treatment), your focus is producing papers more than learning how to be a researcher and you aren’t as intimately tied with them for the duration of your career than if they were your graduate advisor. With the current interest in interdisciplinary work, your graduate research may give you insights that will inform and transform your later work, and even instrumental in inspiring key breakthroughs.

Also, many advisors have some flexibility on the exact form of their research interests, so that if you have a particular interest, one or more of their existing efforts might be able to incorporate modifications to include it.

Finally, if you do end up with ‘buyer’s remorse,’ it is possible to make a change. It can be a very political process, as your advisor may take it as a blow to the ego that you don’t want to continue working for them, so be smart and circumspect about things. If the issues aren’t too serious, you may consider keeping them on your committee as a courteous way of telling them you still value their input into your career. To the extent you can with integrity, cite your reasons for the change in terms of changing research interests rather than your inability to stand them. It is just common sense.

I hope this series has been helpful. I followed much of this in my graduate career and it worked.


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