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7 Finding and Dealing with an Advisor

Dianne Prost O'Leary
©1996,1999,2009
Last modified 21 August 2009.


The choice of advisor is probably the most important one that a graduate student faces, yet it is often done haphazardly.

7.1 What to Look for in a Potential Advisor

The ideal advisor might have the following traits:

7.2 How to Find an Advisor

Before you came to your university, you should have made sure that some faculty members were active researchers in areas of interest to you. Now is the time to consider each of those candidates as a potential advisor, measuring them up against the criteria in the previous section.

Use homepages, departmental annual reports, Science Citation Index, Math Reviews, or other electronic resources to find recent publications by each candidate. Read a few of these publications, and try to understand them enough to be able to ask intelligent questions and to see directions for further work.

Get to know potential advisors by taking courses from them, attending seminar talks given by them, and by seeing them in their offices (by appointment or during office hours) to talk about their research interests. Ask for relevant papers to read.

Talk to other students about various candidate advisors.

Get advice from faculty members that you respect or from the graduate office of your department.

If your potential advisor is untenured, try to find out the prospects for promotion and tenure. Perhaps some other graduate students can help. Otherwise, good indicators are strong publications in major journals, some grant support, and a good teaching record.

Once you have a good candidate advisor, ask that person to be your advisor. Don't be discouraged by a ``no''--try a different advisor. Good advisors are much in demand, and they don't remain good if they stretch themselves too thin.

7.3 The Advisor-Advisee Relationship

The best analogy for the relationship between an advisor and a student is probably that between a parent and a child.

At the beginning, the child has little independence, and almost every action is directed by the parent. Initially, most students need close supervision, being told what papers to read and what tasks to accomplish.

As the child grows, independence develops. A student begins to ask interesting research questions with minimal prompting and can set the direction of the next week's work. The advisor still plays a crucial role as catalyst and evaluator of ideas.

As adolescence sets in, conflicts arise. The student realizes that all too soon, school days will end, and it will be essential to be able to function on one's own. A student eventually may feel that research would be more easily finished without the advisor's ``interference,'' even though the student may lack the detachment necessary to evaluate the work. Independence is frightening, but dependence is resented, and frustration can run high.

In adulthood, parent and child redefine the relationship. The process of graduate school should transform the advisor's student into the advisor's colleague. The two may or may not continue to collaborate after the student graduates, but future contact is ideally built on mutual respect, gratitude from the student to the advisor for the professional formation, and pride of the advisor in the student's accomplishments.

It is important that the advisor and advisee develop a compatible working style. Some people thrive on regular weekly meetings between the two that force the student to synthesize the week's accomplishments (or to explain the reasons for the lack of progress). Others rely on chance encounters in the hall. Some advisors have weekly group meetings at which each student discusses progress and everyone can comment. Some advisors expect students to attend seminars or journal clubs in order to keep up with recent research results.

If you feel that you are floundering (as every student sometimes does), ask your advisor for extra meetings, send frequent email messages asking for pointers, or discuss your work with another trusted faculty member or student.

As in any relationship, conflicts should be faced and discussed. Cultural and generational differences can lead to misunderstandings that are easily resolved once they are recognized. Sometimes a fellow faculty member or graduate student can lend some insight.

In rare cases, the relationship just does not work. In such cases, the student should seek another advisor, leaving the first with as little ill-will as possible.


next up previous contents
Next: 8 Finding a Topic Up: gradstudy Previous: 6 Surviving Oral Exams   Contents
Dianne O'Leary 2009-08-21