Thursday, February 09, 2006


David Molnar asks about how to evaluate an advisor. There is no objective method to evaluate advisors, faculty have different students to start with so one cannot directly compare the quality of their Ph.D.s. It's easy to advise a very intelligent hard-working student; it's advising the others that really separates the great advisors from the good ones.

To best evaluate an advisor, ask their students—both the successful ones and the ones that struggle. Keep in mind that an advisor's style that works with one kind of student might not work with another so listen to why a particular advisor is good or bad. These are especially good questions for undergrads to ask current Ph.D. students when the visit potential graduate schools.

Molnar also notes that he hasn't found many resources on how to be a good advisor. We all have different approaches and one could write a book on the topic but here are general techniques (many of which I learned from my own advisor Michael Sipser).

Have students work on problems that interest them not just you. I like to hand them a proceedings of a recent conference and have them skim abstracts to find papers they enjoy. However if they stray too far from your research interests, you will have a hard time pushing them in the right directions. And don't work on their problems unless they want you to.

Keep your students motivated. Meet with them on a regular basis. Encourage students to discuss their problems and other research questions with other students and faculty. Do your best to keep their spirits high if they have trouble proving theorems or are not getting their papers into conferences. Once they lose interest in theory they won't succeed.

Feel free to have them read papers, do some refereeing and reviewing, give talks on recent great papers. These are good skills for them to learn. But don't abuse them too much.

Make sure they learn that selling their research is as important as proving the theorems. Have them write the papers and make them rewrite until the paper properly motivates the work. Make them give practice talks before conferences and do not hold back on the criticism.

Some students will want to talk about some personal issues they have. Listen as a friend and give some suggestions without being condescending. But if they have a serious emotional crisis, you are not trained for that; point them to your university counseling services.

Once it becomes clear a student won't succeed working with you, or won't succeed as a theorist or won't succeed in graduate work, cut them loose. The hardest thing to do as an advisor is to tell a student, particular one that tries hard, that they should go do something else. It's much easier to just keep them on until they get frustrated and quit, but you do no one any favors that way.


  1. Thank you for your careful response and the advising suggestions. They are much appreciated, since I've started working with undergraduates on theory-ish projects.

  2. I would like to know more about that sort of students that have to do something else. Have you seen any student of this kind? Please write about this if you have seen any cases!

  3. I'd distinguish between two worrisome sorts of students. The first sort are the ones who slowly manage to get something done but never seem enthusiastic about anything. There it's worth having a conversation in which you suggest that perhaps another advisor, another subfield, or even another career might prove more satisfying. I certainly wouldn't advocate trying to drive these students away (make it clear that you recognize that they are making some progress, and are just worried that they don't seem happy). Sometimes someone just has a morose personality type, but wouldn't change a thing. Other times someone is miserable but feels trapped, and being supportive can help them make much better decisions.

    The second sort of student is the sort who is terribly enthusiastic but may be over their head. That's an awfully hard case, since it doesn't seem right to let someone spend years in a Ph.D. program with little chance of getting the sort of job they want, but you don't want to crush someone's dreams unless you're absolutely certain. I honestly have no idea what to do here. I've seen some students eventually graduate (just barely) and then fail spectacularly on the job market, but I've seen others finally manage to prove everyone wrong by pulling off the project nobody thought they could complete.

  4. Set a good role model. This is easier said than done.

    If your student sees you furiously typing a paper after dinner to meet a 23:59 pm EST deadline, chances are they will too.

    If you consistently display a habit of shoving details under the "big-Oh" or "it is not hard to see that" rugs, chances are they will too.

  5. I thought that the point of the big-O notation was to shove stuff under it.

    But how much stuff? Only O(1).


  6. If your student sees you furiously typing a paper after dinner to meet a 23:59 pm EST deadline, chances are they will too.

    I would have thought this isn't necessarily good role-modeling. I'd rather have a paper done a few days in advance of a deadline.

    That not withstanding, great post!

  7. ``I would have thought this isn't necessarily good role-modeling. I'd rather have a paper done a few days in advance of a deadline."

    Yes, that was the point, it was something bad, just like sweeping a lot ``under the rug."

  8. Oh, totally missed that :).

    This gets me to thinking: what are the best qualities for a researcher (advisor or student) to have?


    I have a small idea to share but it's somewhat long.