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URMC / Education / Graduate Education / URBest Blog / January 2017 / How to Pick an Advisor

How to Pick an Advisor

News Article By Ryan Connor, PhD Candidate


Luke and Yoda

Do or do not. There is no try - Yoda

The force is strong with this one – Darth Vader

So, you decided to go to graduate school, and now you need to decide on an advisor. Or, perhaps, you recently chose a mentor and are now wondering if you made a good (or a bad) choice. Fear not, I shall highlight what a number of professors and others have written with regards to how to pick a good thesis advisor.

It’s a trap! – Admiral Ackbar

Some people coming directly from undergrad research feel they have a clear idea of the topic, lab and advisor they would like based on their research experiences. While reflecting on past experiences and identifying what worked and what didn’t certainly is important, I think it is equally important to realize your new graduate student role and environment will be totally different from that of undergrad. Plus, limiting yourself to topics related to your undergrad research is unnecessarily restrictive. Full disclosure, I fell into this category.

Similarly, while having a passion for and believing in your research is certainly important, it does not necessarily follow that any person working within that research field would be a good advisor for you. If you look closely, many experienced scientists have worked on a variety and range of topics, so there is no need to start your career on exactly the topic you dream of working on. If you don’t believe me, talk to some faculty or compare their most recent publications with their earliest publications.

Another attitude that somewhat misses the mark is that of the student who wants to work for the most famous professor in the department. While those professors have likely gained their reputation for good reason, this does not necessarily mean they are a good mentor or a good match for you. Another slippery slope is “I’ll pick whoever seems nicest to me.” Yes, you certainly need to get along with your advisor, but trying too hard to be “one of the guys/gals,” is arguably a bad sign. Graduate school is not just school, but also a professional work environment, and so keeping an appropriate professional distance is healthy, a point made by many commentators1,2.

Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1 – C-3PO

While having an open mind is certainly good, you should have a plan for picking an advisor, leaving it in the hands of life’s RNG (i.e. random number generator) is probably not a good idea.  Luckily for you, prominent scientists working in a variety of fields, including the biomedical sciences, have explored the topic of picking an advisor. Many of these articles also contain advice on what to do in the event you feel you made a bad choice. Here I’ll highlight some of the common salient points while focusing on the particular discussions of two life scientists.

These aren’t the droids you’re looking for... – Obi Wan Kenobi

A general consensus – made most clear by Stanford’s neuroscientist Professor Ben Barres3 – is that there are two key attributes of a good thesis advisor: being an excellent scientist and being a good mentor. Therefore, we will need two distinct ways to evaluate mentors.

Determining if an advisor is a good scientist is something we are all probably familiar with, even if it is a bit of a touchy topic. Look up potential advisors publication records on NCBI’s  PubMed and funding status on NIH’s RePORT. Not only do you want an advisor with a record of NIH funding but, ideally, they will also have a record of grant renewals. That said, besides the NIH, there exist other funding agencies, such as the NSF, the DoD, philanthropies and many others. Another measure of a scientist’s productivity and impact can be evaluated with the H-Index however, based on my understanding of it, I think it might be overly simplistic. Keep in mind that new or junior faculty will not only have a lower H-Index, but also likely less publications and less funding. This of course does not necessarily mean they are less productive scientists, simply that there is less work on which to judge them. Further, given the current funding climate, even good, established investigators may sometimes struggle with funding.

Now, identifying a professor that is a good mentor seems to be orders of magnitude more difficult. Still, there are some things to look at which can help determine this. First is past student placement. If a majority of past students have been able to secure good jobs, then the advisor is most likely a good mentor. You can uncover this information by directly asking the professor, requesting the department’s reporting records, or doing a Google or LinkedIn search on past personnel. Another factor to consider is time-to-graduation for an advisor’s students. In particular, as this can vary by discipline, you’ll want to compare this to the average for the department or among faculty with a similar research focus. If a particular advisor’s students tend to take especially long to graduate, this may suggest that their students lack sufficient guidance. Another measure is the number of publications a student graduates with. While Dr. Barres stands out with his suggestion that students only really need one strong publication, most commentators suggest about three publications (see Dr. Stearns below, for example).

Finally, you should take a look at the advisor’s work-life balance. While graduate school, or being a PI, is certainly demanding, if your advisor’s work-life balance strikes you, personally, as unreasonable, it is unlikely that they would expect anything less of their students. You can get some insight into this during a rotation with them, or by have an honest conversation with them about their expectations.

Other factors to consider would be how regularly they meet with their students, how quickly they respond to questions they cannot answer immediately in person, how quickly they reply to emails, and the quality and timeliness of feedback on any writing you may be preparing to submit. While everyone gets busy and has to cope with unexpected events, cancelling and rescheduling should be the exception not the norm. A particularly good sign would be if they take the initiative to suggest specific times for rescheduling. If cancelling is the norm, students, or at least you, may not be a priority. Similarly, if written feedback takes an especially long time or is little more than, “Do it again,” they are unlikely to be able or willing to invest the time and energy necessary for you to continually improve during graduate school1,4.

Comparisons between junior and senior faculty or large and small labs are another common factor often considered. Junior faculty have less of a track record so they’re difficult to judge, particularly with regards to mentoring. Generally, they’re regarded as being more energetic, but perhaps a bit more likely to micromanage due to the stress of trying to secure tenure. Senior faculty have a strong track record on which to judge them, but they may be burnt out or have taken on more administrative duties, which could limit their availability. Still, it’s worth noting that none of the issues being discussed here are cut and dry. For example, just because a professor has taken on a lot of administrative duties doesn’t mean for sure that they will not have the time to provide adequate mentoring. They might schedule their time effectively, make mentoring a priority, and ensure that adequate contact time is provided. Still, you might not be able to drop by their office whenever you feel like it. Similarly, small labs are often described as affording more opportunities for individualized attention, but as potentially representing a resource-limited environment. Large labs are the opposite. They are described as typically being flush with cash but easy to get lost in4.

Great, kid. Don’t get cocky – Han Solo

All of this thus far suggests that personal preferences play an important role in deciding which lab, and which mentor, is best for you. The measures suggested above only get you so far. None of them are perfect. There is no rubric on which to grade faculty in each category. So, after doing your homework on the faculty, you also need to take an honest look at yourself and determine your strengths and weaknesses, your work preferences and communication style. Being honest here is key. If you hate micromanaging, but tell yourself that you could deal with it if the advisor is amazing otherwise, you really only have yourself to blame if your advisor’s micromanaging is making you miserable latter on during graduate school. Not only is this important in determining if an ostensibly good advisor is a good fit for you, but it can also potentially help you avoid future pitfalls, especially in the case that you chose a less than ideal advisor.

Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose - Yoda

Another related angle is to take ownership of the Ph.D. experience and be strategic with your time during grad-school. Yale’s Ecologist and Evolutionary Biologist Professor Stephen Stearn’s advice on how to navigate graduate school focuses on taking ownership of your degree5. Unlike Dr. Barre, who explicitly focuses on the role of the graduate advisor, Dr. Stearn advocates for self-direction. In fact, he seems to avoid the issue of advisor selection. He seems to recognize that there is more to success than following the rules and working hard and suggests that you need to be prepared to quit if graduate school isn’t serving you. This strikes me as an almost Zen approach to graduate school – If you stop focusing on the degree and instead focus on the work, the degree will come to you (or something like that). Ideally, you will be able to make graduate school work for you, but part of making it work is recognizing that there are other routes to success than the Ph.D. Dr. Stearn believes that if you feel beholden to your diploma, then you are more likely to act subservient (read: easily abused/taken advantage of). If you allow your self-esteem and confidence to be eroded, you will never be able to become a colleague, which is what you need to be at the end of your program. He thinks that if you have confidence, you will be proactive in seeking help and ensuring that you have quality publications. Now, in my opinion, none of this diminishes the importance of having a good advisor, but having self-confidence and being self-directed will help you cope with a less-than-ideal mentor. Also, I believe part of having self-confidence, as opposed to being arrogant, is being able to look at yourself honestly and recognize both your strengths and your weaknesses – skills important in identifying a good mentor.

All mentors have a way of seeing more of our faults than we would like. It’s the only way we grow. - Padme

Hopefully this brief – or not so brief – summary has been helpful. Much of the advice is common sense, but you may feel hesitant about putting the advice into action. If you’re concerned about coming off as difficult, or some similar worry, ask yourself this: Is it worth risking your success in graduate school so as to not appear difficult? And finally, recognize that your success in life and your career, whatever it may be, is not solely dependent on getting a Ph.D. Follow the advice of Barres and Stephens, and work to become the future colleague that you would want to work with: a good scientist and a good mentor.

Best of luck!

References and additional resources

1. von Diether, B. Surviving a Bad Thesis or Dissertation Advisor.

2. Wilkens, J. Where should YOU go to grad school? A guide.

3. Barres, B. How to pick a graduate advisor. Cell. 2013. DOI:

4. Shives, KD. Picking a good Mentor.

5. Stearns, SC. Some modest advice for graduate students.

Kelsky, K. The Professor Is In.

University of Michigan. How to get the mentoring you want: A guide for graduate students.

University of Maryland. Mentoring, Advice for graduate students.

Tracey Baas | 1/3/2017

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