Picking the Right Advisor

As my time at Rutgers comes to a close this fall, I’ve started to reflect on some of the events and traditions I’ll be doing for the last time as a Rutgers student. It’s partially what sparked my interest to start contributing in this space.  Recently my mind has wandered on the events as to why I ended up here at Rutgers.  Before making my decision to come to graduate school, I searched out advice from faculty members, current graduate students, as well as perspectives from people who started working immediately after college. The most surprising thing about my investigation were the details and stories told by my former undergraduate faculty, specifically the highs and lows of their adviser experiences.

I know when I started graduate school, I didn’t really understand the totality of picking an adviser. I knew it was someone I was going to work with/for, but that’s really just the beginning of what your adviser will be to your time here.  My biggest recommendation on finding an adviser is finding someone you admire as to how they think and carry themselves, and who also happens to mold a project to your interest. I think every graduate student extracts some traits from their adviser, so in a way you need to find someone you are comfortable becoming yourself.  What makes it difficult is you can’t just choose based on this advice. I informally joined a group during my first year because I liked the adviser and the other group members, but I just couldn’t fully dedicate myself to the research. I picked a project that I struggled to see the real-life applications of, and when I wasn’t able to explain my research to non-scientists, because I didn’t fully understand it myself, I knew I needed to find something else.

I was torn. There were only a few other full professors in my department that were studying topics related to my specialized area of interest. I emailed a few, heard back from a couple, and after meeting with them my decision was very easy to make. Both of their research projects were similar, but they were very different people. One was very student centered, the other one was not. I knew that I needed an adviser I felt comfortable asking questions of, one who was going to be understanding, and one who would most likely hold me accountable to deadlines and actions.

Here I am, 6 years later, somewhat the group specialist when it comes to gas chromatography (which doesn’t get me as many dates as you’d think). I know that after being somewhat micro-managed early on during my research, which is what I’ve wanted, it has allowed growth in the long term; and that, ultimately, my adviser gave me a project I could run with and helped establish the foundation for becoming an independent scientist. I think that’s finally happened, and that’s why I’m ready to graduate.

If anyone can talk more about their experience with lab rotations and how that affected how you ended up with your adviser, write in the comments!

1 thought on “Picking the Right Advisor”

  1. Brandon, I think your story of switching labs is common. It is important to do rotations, if your program allows it, before selecting a lab to fully understand the pace and culture of the group. Every adviser and lab group has a different set of priorities and work styles. Finding one in which you are comfortable and have space to grow is the key to success, despite the alignment of the research. And don’t be afraid to switch labs if it is not working out…you are the one person looking out for you, so make the choices that will be in your own best interest.

    I do think that students select labs either because of the research topic or because of the culture and fit; in my experience the ones who choose based on the latter are happier with their graduate experience and tend to do more work they enjoy. I had the experience of working in one lab, after choosing an adviser based on research interest, not meshing with the work style (attention to deadlines, time in the lab, communication style) and changing to a lab where I am very happy and have many opportunities to seek collaboration and to explore teaching and leadership development.

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