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!

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!