How To Pick an Advisor*

After my program had a bit of a kerfluffle concerning a poor Grad Student-Advisor match, I got to thinking about my Advisor. Once the kerfluffle had kerfluffed, I really wanted to get out my opinions about choosing an Advisor and criteria to consider. So, feel free to skip this post (it's long and riddled with parenthetical thoughts), if you're unconcerned with such things.

I'm lucky enough to have a good Advisor (and I'm not just saying that because he controls my ability to graduate). He doesn't critique my freezer door opening technique (by the way, I love that phrase and I think I'm going to use that as a euphemism for micromanaging from now on), is ok if I take time off in the middle of the week (assuming that I'll make the time up later), introduces me to people at meetings (and helps me maintain the contacts), and is generally a good guy.

Then again, luck may not have been the biggest factor. I teched (and, yes, that's a word-- that I may or may not have made up) in a lab for about four years (through undergrad and masters) and the piece of advice I received over and over again, when people heard I was going to grad school, was: Pick a good Advisor. So, I did.

Ok, so maybe it wasn't that simple. Basically, picking an Advisor is a lot like dating (but with much higher consequences... it's pretty easy, in comparison, to break up with a boyfriend), but you have a shorter period to decide if s/he is a keeper. Keeping that in mind, I made a list of things that I wanted in an Advisor (see? a lot like dating... a good sense of humor was on that list, too). There are a bunch of things to consider when making such a list. For instance, you want to consider the amount of oversight you need (are you ok with never seeing your advisor or do you need them standing over you?), the management style they use (as in do you respond more favorably to the carrot or the stick? and which does your prospective advisor employ?), the size of the lab they keep (would you get lonely being the only grad student? would you get lost in the crowd?), etc. [ETA: Albatross mentioned another very important point: Where do their students end up? And how much help does the advisor give to get them there.]

The last thing I considered was The Science. Ok, this is a point of disagreement between me and other people I know. I didn't talk to any prospective advisor whose science I found flat-out boring. However, I wasn't going to discount a prospective lab just because their sciences wasn't all sexy-like. The way I figure it, I'm in grad school to be trained to be a scientist, not to be locked into one small sub-field for the rest of my life (I'm talking about switching between fields in biochemistry). So, as far as The Science was concerned I looked for something interesting and that would teach me a variety of transferable skills. And if I've learned one thing through out my entire educational career, it's that having an arsenal of transferable skills is always a trump card.

When it came time to talk to prospective advisors, I asked them questions about their science and about how they handled things in the lab (ex. How do you feel about student schedules? Do you prefer your students to work during normal hours or just all of them?). From their answers, I narrowed it down to two people that I thought would be good matches. Then, I spoke to their current (and in one case former) grad students. One had students that absolutely liked their advisor, but admitted that s/he had hir faults (as in not always remembering that Rome wasn't built in a day, sometimes crabby, and other usual human things). The other one's students were a bit more ambivalent and one told me that s/he was not always helpful and sometimes contributed to a not-so-great lab atmosphere. However, the latter had the cooler science.

I chose the former. A later student chose the latter. Guess which one is enjoying grad school more?

*At least how I chose my Advisor.

Labels: ,