Dr. Jekyll v Ms. Hyde – The truth about picking an adviser

The truth is picking your adviser is one of the most important decisions you will make in your graduate career and also one of the least informed.  While you may spend hours deliberating topics and personalities, it is unlikely you will make your decision with a full picture of who that person is or what your research with them will be like.  It’s a gamble.  Your assessment of that person and their lab may be entirely accurate or incomplete when you choose to work with him/her.

If you are entering a program that doesn’t automatically pair you with your advisor (like many at Rutgers, including Nutritional Sciences), you are tasked speed-meeting the potential mentors.  You may narrow down your choices and spend a little time in 2 or 3 different labs.  Then you have the monumental task of choosing the person who will be your mentor for the next 4-7 years.  So how do you choose?  What should you consider?

Brandon wrote a post  in the fall about his choice of adviser and provided great advice on picking “someone you are comfortable becoming yourself.”  I can personally relate to this comment, seeing now how I have learned habits and behaviors from my own adviser.  In addition to picking a mentor who you admire, here are a few other reasons you may select an adviser:

  • The lab is Amazing! – Possibly the lab has all of the equipment that you have dreamed of.  Or the people who work in the lab are your soon-to-be best friends.  Consider that you will spend a lot of time in the physical lab and working with the people.  Pick a place you feel comfortable.
  • The schedule is Amazing! – Maybe you are trying to figure out the 4-hour graduate work week.  If so, you probably don’t want an adviser who expects you at your desk or in the lab 8am – 5pm every day.  If you hate trying to communicate via email and want to see your adviser everyday, picking one who travels a lot may not be the best option.  Pick someone whose work style aligns with your own.
  • The research project is Amazing! – You may have your heart set on studying earthworms.  If so, definitely find the adviser who will nurture your passion and combine it with his/her own.  Remember, research projects always go in unexpected directions.  So if the initial project isn’t exactly what you want, you may later be able to incorporate the things that interest you.
  • The funding is Amazing! – It’s a tough market for graduate students.  If your primary objective is a study support stream, go towards the gold.  Even if this adviser doesn’t have his/her own funding, he/she may be your biggest ally in securing funding through fellowship, grant or teaching assistanceship.  Make sure they are invested in supporting you.
  • My CV will be Amazing! – This adviser may not be your cheerleader, may not be around much, may not be super interested in your project.  However, he/she knows how to get you publications, books, presentations, fellowships, etc.  He/she will drive you to your full potential as a graduate student.

As I consider my experience and other newer students’ experiences choosing an adviser, I realize that you have to gamble.  Decide what is important to you first so you are collecting relevant information.  Within your program, ask the advanced students more details about your options.  Ask your program directors for advice.  Make the most informed roll of the dice that you can.

What other factors did you consider in picking an adviser?  Was your gamble a good one?  Please share your stories on this subject!

Impressions of New Jersey

I thought I would make my first contribution to the blog some thoughts about what everyone at Rutgers seems to have an opinion on: New Jersey. One of the most stigmatized states, you’ll get different responses when you ask someone what they think of the Garden State. Stereotypes abound, from MTV’s unfortunate Jersey Shore to HBO’s The Sopranos. But what is actually there in the space between New York City and Philadelphia? The truth, unsurprisingly, is significantly more subtle.

For most of my life, New Jersey was a myth. There’s nothing intrinsic about New Jersey that caused this. Its just that I grew up in California. For me, the entire eastern coast was a legendary place, populated with Yankees, Knicks, Mafiosos, skyscrapers, boroughs, and sunrises over the water. I was 25 when I made my first trip past the Mississippi to visit my girlfriend’s family up in Connecticut. The closest I got to New Jersey was a day trip down to New York City for what turned out to be a rain-soaked whirlwind tour of Manhattan. I didn’t have any plans on coming back until we were both accepted to graduate school, me to Rutgers Geography and her to the School of Social Work at Columbia. We packed up our lives in Seattle, stuffed the cats into the back seat, and drove ourselves across the country. It was only the second time I had ever been east of Colorado. I was heading back to a mythic land. This time, to stay.

I’ve been here for five years now, and it will be six years before I leave Rutgers. In that time I’ve had some thoughts about New Jersey. Most importantly, I am compelled to point out that New Jersey does not smell. Parts of New Jersey smell, just like parts of every other state smell. If you get away from the cities and the major freeways, you’ll find the New Jersey that nobody ever sees. It shouldn’t be a surprise with a name like the Garden State, but there are still beautiful agricultural pastures in New Jersey. Just take the time to get away from the sprawl and you won’t be disappointed.

To be continued…