How Do You Pick a Grad School Advisor?

Freelance Writer

Sometimes it feels like it takes a village for you to get through grad school. Of all the professors, lab partners, coworkers, assistants, and students you'll interact with in your grad school years, few are as important to your success as your advisor.

But how do you choose your advisor in grad school? And why is this one person so important? Choosing an advisor isn't as easy as it sounds. Finding the right mix of professional knowledge and success, personal style, and even availability isn't always as straightforward as going to the department chair like you might have done as an undergrad. You have to do a little self-assessment and searching around to find the graduate advisor who will work best with you. But once you find that person, your grad school years will become much smoother.

Here are a few ways to make sure you find the right grad school advisor.

Find the expert in your interests

Logically, you want your advisor to guide you through whatever graduate school difficulties you might encounter. But you also need someone who has been in your shoes. Start looking around in your department for someone who has similar interests and has achieved professional success or recognition within their field. Consider their standing in the university, their own career achievements, their network of associates, and even their current group of advisees (as these people will potentially be in your professional network as well), their history with getting reliable funding, and how well those qualities will fit your own goals.

Make sure they have time

Everyone might love a certain professor, but if she is overloaded with advising duties, she might not have as much time to focus on your work. The same thing can happen with a professor who is on the verge of a lab breakthrough; all the work and potential travel could detract from their availability. It's not a bad idea to ask other students for their impressions of different advisors. You want to make sure you find someone who will help you and has time to work with you and give you feedback when you need it.

Finding the right rapport

You're not looking for someone who can hold your hand through grad school, but you do need someone who has the right advising style for you. You'll be working closely with your advisor, so you'll want to make sure your personalities mesh enough to get the necessary work done and to be able to navigate feedback. Are you someone who can take criticism if you know it makes your work better? Then that brilliant department chair with a reputation for being prickly might be a good advisor for you. Do you tend to obsess over details to the point of procrastination? Then try to find an advisor who can help you set deadlines and get moving so you don't stagnate and fall behind. Are you a super-organized go-getter? Then that well-respected but messy and absent-minded advisor might not work for you.

What your advisor can do for you

Obviously, your advisor will guide you on a path to getting your degree and contribute significantly to that process and how it flows. But while an advisor is helping you with your dissertation, he can also help you get ready for the next step. Find out if you'll be part of the professor's own research in any way. Will you have opportunities for presenting your work at conferences? Is this person experienced enough to help you get from just accumulating information to helping you make your own voice heard in your field?

Navigate the relationship

Your advisor is not necessarily your mentor. While some lucky grad students find a mentor in their advisor, don't count on it. Your advisor is going to help get you through your thesis and dissertation, but they may not have the time or desire to help you network or give you deeply personal career advice.

Respect the boundaries your advisor establishes and treat the relationship as you would any professional interaction. They are invested in you, but they won't take it kindly if you come to meetings late or unprepared. Remember, your relationship doesn't end when you graduate. You need the high esteem of your advisor as they will be supporting you through your dissertation and also writing letters of recommendation for you.

As in most relationships, you’ll get out of it what you put in.

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