Higher Education > Advanced Advice

Choosing an Advisor

Grad school success hinges on finding your perfect match

By Marilyn Vogler Urion

There is no way around it—having an advisor you work well with is a necessity for success in graduate school. But what makes a good advisor? There are certainly general attributes that are desirable, but to have a truly successful advisor relationship, each student must find someone who matches their own unique personality, goals and work habits.

Students have specific needs when it comes to choosing a suitable advisor. Doctoral students, for example, have different concerns than students who are only receiving a master's degree. Some students are determined to get their degree but aren't particularly committed to a specific area of research, while others are more committed to a research agenda than completing the degree itself. With all these variables, it is important to seek out an advisor who can provide the type of support you need.

Would you like a mentor who provides personal as well as professional guidance and friendship, or is that not a necessity for you? Would you rather have an advisor who can introduce you to the research community, provide advice about research topics or give you feedback on your thesis?

What Do You Want in an Advisor?

Before you even begin graduate school, it's important that you spend time figuring out exactly what you're looking for in an advisor—the more clearly you understand your needs the better able you will be to chose a suitable advisor.

Prepare a general list that you can share with a potential mentor in order to find out if they are a good fit for your particular needs. Knowing yourself is essential. What do you want out of your graduate education? What level of independence do you thrive in? What sort of encouragement and critique do you need? Students surveyed at Michigan Technological University believe it is important that students and their advisors share the same level of motivation for their research. Ask yourself how hard you are willing to work Are you as committed to your work as the advisor who spends weekends and holidays in the lab and expects grad students to do the same?

After analyzing what your specific needs are, how do you go about finally choosing an advisor? You can always get good information on what it is like to work with a particular professor by talking to fellow students who have worked with him or her. You should also try to get to know some of the professors at department picnics, seminars and other formal or informal gatherings. Does your university offer campus panel discussions or brown bag lunches about choosing an advisor? If so, participate in them. Take the time to talk with faculty about their research. And assess whether or not they seem to have time to talk with you. Are they eager to get to know you? This is a good measure of how assessable they would be as an advisor.

Perhaps the faculty member that seems to have similar goals and interests as you has a reputation for being hard to get along with-should you cross them off your list? Not necessarily. Sometimes advisors who are extremely well organized or demanding get a bad rap, however, if you are someone who needs a lot of outside structure and motivation this could actually be a good fit for you.

It's also not necessarily a bad idea to choose a faculty member who already has a lot of graduate students. Some advisors make time for their students no matter how many they are advising. It is a mistake, however, to choose an advisor simply because he or she is well known. Similarly, choosing an advisor and a research topic simply because they come with funding should be avoided.

When the Advisor Chooses You

Many students arrive on campus already "chosen" by an advisor because they've offered to support you with an assistantship. In these cases, it's important to be a proactive applicant, and there are certain things you should do before you accept an offer.

Before you even apply to graduate schools it is helpful to use the Internet to do some research. Visit the Web sites of departments, programs and faculty members. Are they working on topics that interest you? Are there several faculty members' projects that you'd like to be a part of?

Prepare your applications carefully and thoroughly. Most schools ask for an essay of some sort-it may be about research interests, career plans or educational goals. Your essay should demonstrate who you are and what you find exciting about your area of study. Provide examples and be detailed. Mention specific projects you've found on their Web sites that interest you. And remember to give yourself some choices by applying to several universities.

Once a school has your application in hand, your work is not over. Follow up with a phone call. Contact a particular faculty member you'd like to work with or the director of graduate studies. Schools are often eager to encourage serious graduate students. Tell them who you are and what areas you're interested in working. Ask if it's possible to visit the campus to meet faculty and students and to tour the facilities. Some schools even have funds to help pay for visit expenses. Do not, however, ask if funding is available. When you visit the campus be prepared to talk about the work you've done as an undergraduate—research experiences, papers and projects.

Presenting yourself as an organized, competed student will certainly attract likeminded advisors. Students far too often leave graduate programs without completing their degree because of bad relationships with their advisors. Conversely, students who have advisors that ask good questions, provide useful feedback and understand the kind of support their students need are priceless.

Marilyn Vogler Urion is the assistant dean of the graduate school at Michigan Technological University, Houghton, Mich.

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Higher Education > Advanced Advice