Five Strategies for Choosing the Right Advisor

by The Ebony Tower Contributors

I’m sure you’ve heard that the journey through a PhD program is a lonely and isolating experience, and while the lie detector test has determined that isn’t a lie, successfully making it through your program will, in fact, require a good support system. The foundation for a strong doctoral support system is your academic advisor/committee chair. Believe it or not, she or he can make for break your graduate school experience. The difference between an advisor who is a good fit, both academically and interpersonally, and one who isn’t can be the difference between thriving or floundering in a PhD program.  Your advisor can be your fiercest advocate or your greatest obstacle, your source of support through PhD milestones or the reason you finally seek therapy, and, most of all, the difference between graduating in five years and defending your prospectus in year six.  I wish I was exaggerating but unfortunately, it is the truth.  For all these reasons, choosing the right advisor is one of the most important decisions you will make as a graduate student. Because The Ebony Tower cares about your mental and academic well-being, which is undoubtedly shaped by your relationship with your advisor, we’ve identified five strategies for choosing the right advisor for YOU!  

  1. Choose a program or department with more than one potential advisor. I know, firsthand, what happens when the only person in the department who can support your research interests leaves; it’s a difficult situation – to say the least.  Even if your advisor has no plans to leave, there is always the chance that the two of you may not click, and having a healthy interpersonal relationship with your advisor matters tremendously. With that being said, make sure you have options; an advisor is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get.
  2. Finding the right advisor for you starts with self-reflection and an understanding of what you need to be successful. During your interview or campus visit, try to meet with your potential advisor and ask the right questions. Ask your potential advisor about his or her management style. For instance, if you are a self-starter but your advisor prefers a more hands-on approach, you may eventually feel micro-managed rather than supported.  If you are seeking an apprenticeship, but your advisor expects his/her advisees to launch and conduct their own independent projects, you may get lost in the shuffle.  Alternatively, if you want the freedom to conduct your own research or work on projects with other professors, it’s great to know whether your advisor is stingy with his/her advisees.  You might also want to find a clever way of figuring out their projected timeline for defending since it maybe much longer than your own.  Finally, ask how often they prefer to meet with their students, which can range from once or twice a week two once but twice a year.
  3. Take into consideration whether or not your potential adviser has tenure or not. Both situations have their pros and cons. From my personal experience, professors who are still working toward tenure are typically grinding really hard, and are often more than willing to publish with you. Because they aren’t so far removed from the graduate experience, they are full of advice that can help you work smarter and efficiently navigate the job market.  Just remember that there is always a chance that a tenure-track professor won’t get tenure or will simply leave for greener pastures. Alternatively, tenured professors are often more settled.  Other benefits of having a tenured advisor is that he or she may be more willing to offer students first author publication opportunities.  Additionally, as my former tenure-track mentor once told me, “it is very different for a full professor versus an early career professor to write a recommendation proclaiming that a student is the greatest that he/she has ever seen. One professor has worked with countless students for a decade or more and the other professor has worked with one or two students since graduating from his/her PhD program.”  My mentor wasn’t implying that the recommendation from a tenure-track professor isn’t valuable, but you should remember that academia is very prestige driven and hierarchical in nature.
  4. Figure out how open your potential department is to graduate students switching advisors.  The department’s stance on whether graduate students can freely switch advisors is literally the difference between amicably moving on to another advisor- who’s a better fit for your interests – and either living with the tension that comes from breaking an unspoken rule or having to completely leave your program to find a better fit. Neither of the latter options are optimal; therefore, you should figure this out before you accept an offer.
  5. Try to assess your potential advisor’s track record with the other graduate students.  While no two people will have the exact same relationship or experience with an advisor, you should know whether or not your potential advisor has been able to establish AND maintain productive relationships with past and current advisees. One polite way to do this is by asking your potential advisor, during an interview or visit, whether they are currently conducting research with any graduate students and how their advisees fare on the job market.  This information will provide you with an idea of whether or not they have successfully ushered students through the doctoral program. Another very important way to DISCREETLY gather this information is by asking other graduate students in the department. Just know, whether they share information will depend on whether you seem trustworthy.  If you ask a graduate student for the truth, or they simply offer, please assure them that you will keep quiet about the things they’ve shared.  Graduate students take a huge risk by telling you the truth.  If you inadvertently report back to a professor what graduate students have said, you not only get them in trouble, but you also prevent other potential students from getting tea in the future.  

Overall, choosing the right advisor is essential to your success in graduate school. Use the above tips and choose wisely!

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