Finding Mr. or Ms. Right: The Search for the Perfect Advisor

by Angelean Hendrix

One of the most important decisions of your graduate career will be the advisor you choose to work with.  As a graduate student who has the BEST advisor ever and has seen many of her colleagues struggle with incompatible mentors, here are my Top 7 1/2 Guidelines for choosing an advisor ( I know Top 10 lists are traditional, but I have a class to get to).
#7  Prepare for the unexpected. When you choose your graduate program, make sure there is more than one person working in the field you think you may be interested in. This gives you a choice of people to work with just in case.  (Hey buses can hit anyone, right?)
#6  Be open to new experiences. There are so many research areas, no one, especially while we are still students can be exposed to everyone.  You never know where the spark is going to come from.   The good news is … mathematicians LOVE to talk about their work (ad nauseam).  If it looks interesting, sit and talk to the professor.  I’ve never met one yet that turned me down
#5 Get a feel for their working style. Everybody’s different (even mathematicians, despite the rumors). Some people are organized and list orientated. Some people are more organic with their research. Both approaches produce wonderful results. But if you are an organizer, and your advisor is not, years of frustration will follow (ditto to the other way too).
#4 Get a sense of what their priorities are and how they fit with your goals. If a professor has a grant already, you may be expected to work on their research which is great experience. If having your own research is important to you, find someone who will supportive of that. There’s nothing worse than needing an idea and not having someone to guide you, or having an idea and not having the support to pursue it.
#3 Speak up, ask questions. Professors are people (I know, surprising, huh?); they were once in your shoes. They know what they needed as a graduate. That may not be what you need. Don’t be afraid to ask what they think the best path is for your career, BEFORE you commit. You don’t want to be forced in a direction you are not comfortable with, nor does a professor want to mentor someone who is fighting against them or unmotivated.
#3 b. Speak up, ask questions (this one is thanks to my fellow grad student Ms. D).  Ask the students who have come before you.  90% of the time a person has developed a reputation for a reason.  Now I’m not saying take everyone at their word, but ask around. You never know what skeletons are lying in wait.
#2 Get a life. OK so maybe not until you’re out of graduate school, but if you have outside interests or priorities, you need to make sure your advisor understands. But if you’re a work-horse and your advisor wants to talk about his remodeling project, yeah, not so good.
#1  Make sure you like your advisor. We joke around here that finding your advisor is like finding a spouse. To an extent, they are very similar. If you work with someone you do not like, it is sure to end up in divorce or misery. Remember, you will be working with this person almost every day, and if all goes well, for a good part of your career. If they are someone you genuinely like, the road will be much smoother (and if they offer to warm up your lunch for you, even better).
This may just be the most important decision you make in graduate school.  May it a good one.  Make sure your gut agrees.  From a student who has three wonderful, brilliant advisors, with whom I get along with professionally and personally, it can make all the difference in the world.  (Oh yeah and when you find your advisor, don’t tell anyone, or the next thing you know, the whole department will be knocking their door down. BTW sorry about that, Dr. S.)

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