how do graduate students actually choose their advisers?

In a past installment of grad skool rulz, I offered advice for choosing a dissertation adviser. The idea is simple. Nobody is perfect, but you want someone who has at least a few good traits and no horrible traits. As I was thinking about this post, I wondered – how do graduate students actually choose their advisers? Do people actually methodically try to find a match or do they just “fall” into it? Why do people get stuck with horrible (or good) advisers?

In my own case, I just fell into it and it worked out. I worked with to faculty based on similar research interests (education) and style (both normal science types). But what about people who choose poorly? Part of the issue is that there simply isn’t enough information. Unless you are in a large program, most faculty won’t have more than one or two students in their career. In other cases, students don’t have much choice. For example, if you want to study sociology of science at Indiana, there’s really only one choice. Yet, I still see some students choose advisers who have well developed reputations for being difficult, or advisers who have really slim track records in placing students.  My guess is that students believe that they’ll be the exception to the rule.

Consider this post an open thread on how to effectively find an adviser in graduate school. What are you considering as you choose an adviser?

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz 

Written by fabiorojas

May 23, 2013 at 12:01 am

11 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I’m curious as to why you say that most faculty will only have one or two students in their career. That seems way below the norm at all the Ph.D. programs I’m familiar with. And it also discounts the contributions made being on dissertation committees, qualifying exams, etc.

    I happened to fall into a relationship with my advisor mostly by default as he was the only match for the direction my interests were moving in. But it was a match made in heaven for me, and I’m eternally grateful for all the intellectual and practical help.



    May 23, 2013 at 5:37 am

  2. My advisor chose me. If it had been up to me, there’s no way that I would have chosen her. That’s because I was (and still am) much less driven by rational things (e.g., methods, publications, placement records) and much more by emotional things. I naturally seek connection on personal characteristics (e.g., gender, life circumstance, personality). I understand why we are drawn to people like us, but it can be damaging for students if it results in selecting less effective advisors. If the decision had been up to me, there’s no way that I would have had the positive experience that I did. I also learned from the experience, and wish that students would too, that it’s erroneous to assume that people like us will naturally like us and that people who aren’t like us won’t understand or appreciate us. That said, definitions of success vary for students. For some students to simply make it through they need to choose the less effective advisor who they can connect with, look up to, count on to encourage them, etc. and I understand that completely.



    May 23, 2013 at 11:43 am

  3. @cwalken: You ask a good question about the number of advisees per faculty member. Remember that:

    – Most programs are small in size. For example, IU soc has 12 per class. Only 6 or so will complete a dissertation. We have about 20+ professors.

    – Advising is like any other social relationship – a few people have disproportionately many students. When I was in graduate school, the lion’s share of mentoring was done by a few folks like Ed Laumann, Linda Waite, Andy Abbott and Charles Bidwell – all had multiple students. In contrast, my adviser only produced his first PhD student in 2002 – and he got his PhD in 1977!

    – Many profs work in unpopular fields. For example, org theory is highly unpopular at Indiana. So it is no shock that my first PhD students will go on the market this Fall – ten years after I arrived! In the same period, my colleagues Bernice Pescosolido and Brian Powell (who do health and education) have graduated about one (or two) a year.

    – Deadwood: Some professors simply have stopped being productive and thus have very few students.

    – Cranky: Some profs simply produce few students because they are hard to work with. At Chicago, there was one guy who rarely graduated anyone because he had these impossible standards. Since I entered Chicago till he recently retired (15 years, about), I think he may have had only one complete PhD student.

    – Administration: There’s always a few profs who don’t take students because they do administrative work.

    – Super stars: Some star faculty don’t have students because they simply aren’t around enough to cultivate the relationship.

    The bottom line is that unless you work in a program with *huge* graduate enrollments, or you run a lab that requires PhD students, you will have very few PhD students in your career as a faculty member, even at a top ranked R1 school.



    May 23, 2013 at 3:42 pm

  4. For me, one of the most important criteria when choosing an adviser (and people in a dissertation committee) should be whether the person actually reads students’ work and gives substantial critical written feedback. Such feedback becomes key as grad students advance in their programs and can be the difference between a successful dissertation and falling through the cracks. Based on my own observations, such trait can often compensate for a dissertation in a not very popular subfield or even for the advisors’ lack of seniority.

    Unfortunately, I see many grad students who instead rely on traits such as emotional connection, vibes, etc when selecting their committee, which are important characteristics, but no amount of ‘personal connection’ and compatibility can make up for insufficient feedback on students’ work.

    My advice for students would be to ask around (esp. to older grad students) in their departments about this trait and include at least one of such people in their committees. Keep in mind that since this activity is costly (in terms of time, etc), some faculty members might only do it when they are the principal advisor in a committee.

    Other desirable traits are whether the person is excited about your work, whether person is well liked (or at least respected) in her/his subfield, whether the person is available for meetings (which is connected to earlier point on written feedback) and whether the person has a reputation for being proactive when his/her students go on the market.



    May 23, 2013 at 5:30 pm

  5. It’s possible that my graduate program was an outlier, but while I was there every faculty member beyond the assistant level had at least a couple students at all times, and would graduate at least one every three years. And this was not a large program–cohorts of about 10, faculty size of about 20. Sure, some did a lion’s share of advising but the department was good about selecting students so they’d be spread around.



    May 23, 2013 at 6:33 pm

  6. For me it was:
    – There were only two people in the department that studied sexuality, which is my focus
    – The person I chose had demonstrated a career of excellence, see below
    – Had served at NSF
    – Had demonstrated a history of receiving funding awards
    – Had a history of well-respected publications
    – At the time that I was looking, had more graduate placements than most on my department’s website


    Emily Kennedy

    May 23, 2013 at 6:54 pm

  7. I like curious’ advice above. I am looking to switch advisors as a start my diss. My main criteria are:

    1. gives harsh but helpful feedback about content and ideas. (with the assumption, of course, that this person actually reads their advisees’ work)

    2. is not tremendously out of touch about what the TT job market is like

    3. cares about my wellbeing as person, and has mentored first-gen students and/or students of color in the past (which does not mean that they themselves share those identities)

    4. they are mildly interested in my topic. This is really not that important to me. They obviously have to like the topic to want to advise me, but I’m not, for example, choosing someone solely because they also work in the core area of my diss.

    I developed these criteria after working with my Master’s advisor, who really fell short of 1-3. Each of my options for a diss advisor has different strengths, but their weakness can always be supplemented by connecting with other faculty members.


    living the dream

    May 23, 2013 at 8:44 pm

  8. Early stages grad student here.
    In light of @living the dream’s criteria, how important do you think subject matter alignment is when picking an advisor? Is it advisable to forgo a prof who’s ostensibly working in the same interest-area because he/she does not place students well, is less productive, or doesn’t collaborate with students?

    To answer the original question: I ‘chose’ an advisor based on a narrow definition of my research interests (that is, subfield plus regional focus plus methods) and no other criteria. In retrospect, I should have broadened my lens substantially to include people who are more tangentially involved in my research area. It not only increases your pool of potential advisors, but also prevents pigeonholing whereby faculty don’t invite you to collaborate because they assume you’re ‘spoken for’. This would have also increased the number of programs to which I applied. Other criteria I would add include:
    -able to identify a good question or angle even outside of her/his own subfield (you can see this play out in workshops or lunch talks)
    -not dismissive of research that asks different questions than their own (I welcome criticism, but loathe when profs scoff at a project that’s ‘too’ cultural, ‘too’ structural, ‘too’ quant, etc.).
    -not condescending toward instrumental/career concerns (as a tenured prof, it’s easy to write off students as pandering, trend chasing, or opportunistic. As a student, the exigencies of the job market mean you must occasionally take yourself out of the archives, put on deodorant, and try to publish something more than 10 people will read).
    -involved in departmental community (as Fabio already pointed out, ‘stars’ and ‘deadwood’ might not be around. I look for people who are in workshops, teach grad classes, and have a presence. It means they care about the collective success of students and colleagues, and it stands to reason that more involved people have their own nice little networks than can benefit you on the market).

    These were not my criteria in my first match-up, but hopefully will be moving forward.



    May 23, 2013 at 9:43 pm

  9. Edit: I realize now that my suggested criteria are largely redundant with the grad skool rulz post. Had I read that in advance of choosing a graduate programs, things might have turned out differently. At the same, I never take even my own advice -_- (so yes, I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll be the exception to the rule)



    May 23, 2013 at 10:06 pm

  10. Advisorless, this is only one experience, but for what it’s worth: I have an advisor who knows little about my dissertation topic, but who I chose because I had a history of productive collaboration (on other topics) with him, have learned a lot from his feedback (including on relatively general issues like how to work a series of observations into a more focused paper), and know that he is committed to my success.

    I have no regrets about this choice, but it does have serious drawbacks; I am on my own to a greater degree than I would like, as far as learning the relevant literature and identifying the questions that people in the area of my dissertation will find most interesting. I am concerned about how this will play out at job talks. In retrospect, I wish I had arranged to present at more conferences to maximize my chances of getting feedback from people in my area before going on the market.

    Something that has helped a lot is that some other members of my committee have different areas of expertise that overlap with aspects of my topic, and are very generous with their time. I think the choice of advisor is always very important, but has a different meaning in a collaborative program where students can draw on many professors’ expertise than in a program where faculty feel more proprietary toward students.



    May 24, 2013 at 5:27 pm

  11. “- Super stars: Some star faculty don’t have students because they simply aren’t around enough to cultivate the relationship.”
    In my department, a big top research department, the super stars have typically had a large number of advisees.Bob Hauser and Erik Wright are both well known to be very generous advisors of graduate students and to have trained many people. Myra Ferree has lots of advisees. Alberto Palloni too. Adam Gamoran. In my department, I think the correlation between stardom and number of advisees is positive, even with all the international travel these people do/did.



    May 24, 2013 at 5:53 pm

Comments are closed.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: