Section Three:  

Questions to ask to help select an advisor

The most important decision, particularly in the sciences, is the selection of an advisor. In different disciplines and in different programs students and advisors are matched through different process. There are two common models: the student and advisor matching up after the student is enrolled (in some cases, one picks a dissertation advisor as late as the third year) or matching up as part of the admissions process.

Research on advising suggests that students who ask a lot of questions and take many criteria into account when selecting a potential advisor, are more likely to be satisfied with their advisor. Most students think about an advisorís area of expertise and research when picking an advisor. Many students advise also considering the advisorís personality, working style, advising style and work environment they create in their lab or work group (which is not relevant in all disciplines).

These questions cover a wide range of the kinds of things you may want to discuss with a potential advisor. These are also questions to ask of other students who have worked with that faculty member. Some questions may be more applicable to some fields than to others.

26. What is the process and criteria used for matching advisor and student?

27. Do students often have multiple mentors?

28. Is the advisorís personality appealing and compatible with your own?

What kind of person do you expect your advisor to be (remember, perfection is very rare!)? What kind of relationship do you image that you will have?

29. How many advisees does the person have? How many students finish? How quickly?

Is the time to degree for students of that advisor shorter or longer than the norms of the department? (One lab from which students never seemed to graduate was called "The Roach Motel," because "students checked in and they didnít check out.") How many students does the advisor have? What stage of the process are they all in? How does this compare with other faculty members student load? How many students of that advisor do not complete their degree, or transfer? Why?

30. What are their former advisees doing? Is the advisor proud? Does s/he still serve as a mentor to some?

31. What is the personís reputation as an advisor?

Research interests

The most important criterion in selecting is advisor is finding someone who shares an intellectual interest and field of research with you.

32. What is the personís line of research and their reputation as a scholar? At what stage of their career are they?

33. How does and will the advisorís research relate to the studentís research? How does a student pick dissertation project(s)?

In some disciplines a studentís research is very directly connected to the advisorís research, in others the connection is less direct. Understand the norms of the discipline before you begin talking to faculty. Within the normal range in the field, you still need to understand how much autonomy of project definition and direction is expected of you and available to you.

Some things to learn: How do students select a research project? How much input does the advisor have and want? Is there a research group? What is the range of dissertation topics typically pursued? How quickly do students select a dissertation research project? To what extent does the final dissertation really resemble that in the proposal? Who determines when the student has done sufficient work to complete the dissertation?

Advising style

Advising style is a very personal thing and varies from person to person. Some advisors are very thoughtful and deliberate about their advising, and spend a lot of time attending to their advisees.

34. What is the advisorís work style? What does s/he expect the work style of students to be? Is it compatible with your own?

An advising style can be a difficult thing to ascertain and define. Think about the kinds of behaviors you expect from your advisor, these can be a useful way to define an advising style. You need to know, when you ask an advisor or faculty member for help, what kind of response is helpful to you? Different students expect, want and need different amounts and kinds of feedback. Likewise, different faculty members approach advising doctoral students on research related problems with different degrees of hands-on/hands-off feedback. Here are two examples: (1) If you asked a faculty member for help on a particular research puzzle, would you want them to: Send you to books/articles that can help, offer to give direct feedback on the text or data, tell you what the next step is, offer general strategies and encouragement?(2) When writing articles, research papers or dissertation proposals and text, faculty members might give feedback. How many drafts of each kind of work does an advisor read? What kind and level of detail of feedback to you receive? How quickly can you expect the text to be returned to you?

When talking to other students, you can ask what kinds of students thrive best with this person?

35. What is the advisorís communication style? What is the frequency and quality of interactions?

Recognizing that there are norms by discipline, you can determine how often the advisor meets with students about their work. Is it daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly? Are meetings set upon the studentís request, when the advisor requests, or are they regularly scheduled?

36. How much time does the advisor spend with students on their work?

What are the competing demands on the advisorís time? How frequently is the advisor out of town?

37. What is her/his philosophy of advising?

Many advisors are able to articulate such a philosophy, although many have not yet done so. For example, how does the advisor foster increasing independence in students? How does the advisor resolve conflicts?

Work environment

In many fields there is an active lab or work group in which the advisor and several graduate students (as well as post doctoral fellows and undergraduate students) work together on common research. If you will be spending a lot of time in a lab or in the field in the company of other students and researchers it is important to consider the work environment.

38. Does the work environment and culture of the lab or research group suit you?

How closely do students of that advisor work together? How does the advisor facilitate collaboration?

39. What are the work expectations? Are students able to strike a balance between work/school and personal life?

What are typical student work patterns in the department? Do students typically work most nights and weekends?

40. What opportunities for professional development exist? How supportive is the advisor of studentsí efforts to gain professional breadth?

What other kinds of sponsorship does the advisor provide? Do students co-author papers with the advisor? Does such co-authorship imply joint intellectual work or is the advisor added by courtesy? Do students attend professional conferences? Who pays for these trips? What kinds of help does the advisor provide in finding jobs or post-doc positions?

41. How are students funded for research and travel?

How much funding and financial support can you expect from your advisor? For what does the advisor financially support students: conferences, supplies, books, research expenses, tuition, summers?

Related quotes from students 

Introduction | 1:  Questions for yourself | 2:  Questions for program | 3: Questions for advisor | Resources

Survey on Doctoral Education

Revised 08/14/01