grad skool rulz #7 – picking the adviser

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In previous installments, I’ve discussed how to get through the first half of grad school – courses, exams, friends, etc. The next bunch of “rulz” will be about the second half of grad school – dissertations, advisers, articles, jobs, etc.

This week’s topic: how to select your dissertation adviser, the person who will head the committee that must approve your dissertation. This is very important because it is very difficult to change advisers once you have begun your dissertation and you will need their professional support for a *very* long time. So choose wisely.

Advice in a nutshell: No adviser is perfect, but they need to have at least a few strong suits. Also, the dissertation student-adviser relationship is like any other relationship. If your work style/ professional attitudes don’t match, you should consider other options.

Here is a list of desirable adviser traits. As I said, no one is perfect, but you need *something* to work with. In no particular order:

  1. Placement – A track record of placing recent students in schools you would like to work in. For example, if you want to be a liberal arts teacher, don’t work with someone who disdains undergraduate teaching.
  2. Reputation – A reputation within the profession as a competent and accomplished researcher [Note: I didn’t say “super star.” Just respected within his/her field.]
  3. Authorship/ Co-authorship – A track record of publishing with graduate students in reputable books/journals. The adviser encourages students to publish their own work during the PhD program or shortly thereafter.
  4. Funding – A track record of helping students with funding via grants/research projects.
  5. Usefulness – The ability to offer constructive criticism and praise. One without the other is usually a recipe for emotional disaster.
  6. Accessibility – they are actually around campus so you can consult with them.
  7. Craftsmanship – the ability to see that academic research is a craft that can be taught and developed.
  8. Professionalism – the ability to complete administrative tasks such as writing letters of recommendation for jobs and fellowships.
  9. Boundary control – the adviser does not overstep personal boundaries and treats you as a colleague in training.
  10. Expertise – the adviser knows and/or cares about the are in which your are working.
  11. Personality Match – Make sure your adviser can tolerate your persona. For example, if you are very chatty and need feedback, make sure your adviser can deal with this. They don’t need to be chatty, they only need to be able to tolerate chattiness in others.
  12. Intellectual Style Match – Make sure you can handle the “style” of your adviser. For example, if you are going to write a tightly argued statistical dissertation, don’t pick the guy who reads Foucault all day. A loner shouldn’t work with an adviser who does all group projects. However, if you are willing to learn, you can get a great deal from somebody with a different “style” if you can make some compromises.
  13. Social match – Make sure your adviser has a reputation for liking/tolerating people with your social/intellectual characteristics. For example, some folks really feel more comfortable working with people of a certain gender, or they prefer only ethnographers. Don’t be on a crusade to change other people’s personalities. But be open minded – some people only appear rigid on the outside and can be rather open minded when approached with a smile.
  14. Rational expectations – does the adviser think the dissertation is a perfect object to be carefully worked on over 20 years, or a project with fixed objectives that can be done in 2-3 years?

There are other desirable traits and remember that no adviser is perfect, but you need to choose someone who has at least a few very strong traits. Here are a few other good rules of thumb:

  • Super Star prof isn’t always the best adviser. Stars are often asked to go to a million conferences and serve on fancy committees. A lot of people don’t handle graduate education and these other tasks well, and grad students are often abandoned.
  • Ask around. If Grumpy Prof has been teaching for 25 years and has only placed one student, there’s probably a reason. Ask and you will find out. And don’t think you’ll succeed where others have failed – that’s what the other students said!
  • Appearances can be deceiving. Some folks may be great lecture hall instructors, but awful dissertation advisers, or vice versa. Once again, ask around.
  • Dig deep. Is the great placement record of Prof X’s students dumb luck? Did people succeed despite the awful behavior of Prof X? Get a sense of how Prof X helped out.
  • Avoid junior faculty. In general, most junior faculty are still figuring out the academic game. Also, they tend to move around a bit, especially if they are hot (in the academic sense). Exception: In fast moving technical field, like computer science, a junior adviser may be the *only* person who is on top of things.
  • Don’t use stereotypes. Just because Prof X is of the same gender/race/political persuasion/etc as you, it doesn’t mean they will be a good pick. Don’t let these sorts of characteristics blind you to their weaknesses. What matters is that they can help you become the scholar you want to be. And remember, if you read closely, I said the adviser has to tolerate people like you, not actually be like you. As long as someone can be tolerant, they can usually have a strong work relationship with some one who is very different than themselves.
  • Be prepared for rejection. Some good profs may be overloaded with students, too close to retirement or may not like you. So if you ask to work with them, you might get rejected. It’s ok. Just ask someone else.

Finally, have reasonable expectations. Faculty members are just middle aged men and women with their own careers and families. Don’t expect miracles, but if you do your homework and ask around, you will probably find someone who is professional and helpful.

Written by fabiorojas

April 23, 2007 at 2:31 am

8 Responses

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  1. This is an excellent set of guidelines. I would only add one more dimension: the hands-off versus hands-on adviser. I have heard of advisers that have literally re-written other people’s dissertations (ok maybe this is a little bit of an exaggeration, but just a bit) and that require a “their way or the highway” implicit contract if they are going to advice you. Furthermore for this type A adviser, the dissertation process is a highly structured affair, and the dissertation proposal has to be a well put-together document that anticipates all future contingencies.

    Given my style of work (loner, unstructured, seat of the pants, eclectic, etc.) I knew that such an adviser would not work for me. However I have seen this type of adviser be very effective for other people that are not, shall we say, “self-starters.” In fact, in addition to all of the important things that Fabio mentions, this was my most important criterion in choosing an adviser. He or she had to be hands off, open-minded and tolerant of fuzziness and academic unruliness. I did find one, and it was a match made in heaven!

    I would reiterate Fabio’s point to stay away from Assistant Professors (they should of course have the good sense to decline being your chair), but also to stay away from the curmudgeony unpromoted associate who’s very likely to have standards of what good work constitutes that are outdated and irrelevant.



    April 23, 2007 at 10:20 am

  2. Great points. There’s one other downside to superstar faculty: they get lured away by other universities. Like several other students in my doctoral group, I’m not far along enough to have defended my proposal, but I have been working with my advisor for a sufficient period of time to be fairly committed to a particular line of research. We’re now confronted by her impending departure for a far more lucrative job in another country, and it’s not likely any of us will be able to follow her there. Other members of the departmental faculty are either too junior, too senior, or too far removed from the kind of work our advisor sponsors. Other than this, she’s been terrific on all of the points listed in the post. Any advice?



    April 24, 2007 at 1:52 pm

  3. My guess is that there is some sort of arrangement that can be made to allow her to co-chair your committee even after she leaves the university. I would talk to her about this to see if she’s willing.



    April 24, 2007 at 5:12 pm

  4. Hi, Andrew. You are definitely in a bind, but here’s some ideas:

    1. You might be closer to defending your proposal than you think. It might be strategic to rush this proposal and get the faculty member to sign on before they leave. Remember, in a lot of programs, a proposal is just a 20-30 page document. You can probably write one in a few months or less. Consult grad skool rulz #1 about getting dept rules to learn about deadlines and advisers located at other campuses.

    2. It’s not as bad as you think. If you think the prof will work well over long distance – and many do – discuss the situation with a trusted senior prof and see if you can get the senior prof to be the “official” diss chair and then get your original prof as co-chair or second reader. Often there is an unspoken understanding about who the “real” adviser is. Maybe you can contact the moving prof first to see if she has a trusted colleague who can work in this capacity.

    3. Change topics or just scout for a new adviser. Not optimal, but if you know the long distace format won’t work, it’s best not to even bother. Maybe there is a generalist in the program who is good at mentoring students in a variety of areas, or another research group with a good leader who is looking for recruits. It’s better to spend a semester or two retooling than beig left without support.

    Unless you are in a really small program, there’s probably some good alternatives out there. Good luck!



    April 24, 2007 at 5:16 pm

  5. […] committee, but you should try to choose people that have some positive traits (see grad skool rulz #7 for the list of good traits). You should also follow these rules of […]


  6. […] [3] Rojas, Fabio. “Grad Skool Rulz:7 -Picking the Adviser” […]


  7. […] Short clock disciplines do not expect much from grad students. You don’t need a long list of publications or even a terribly well developed paper – because you’ve only been working on it a year or so. These disciplines tend to rely heavily, almost exclusively, on adviser recommendations and PhD program reputation because there is not much else to go on. The bottom line is that most students who make it to candidacy will soon be kicked out, whether they like it or not. So get smart: get an adviser with a good track record and make sure your job market paper is great. […]


  8. […] Selection:  Accept students who you think you can have productive relationships with based on research focus or personality. It’s ok to turn down students if the fit is bad. This is the flip side of grad skool rulz #7. […]


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