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Friday, January 28, 2005

Choosing Your Advisor

Someone threw out this quote yesterday.
Choosing your advisor is like choosing your spouse.
I would say more like choosing your parent since the advisor-student relationship is not symmetrical. But the point remains: No single decision will make or break your graduate career more than the choice of advisor.

A good advisor serves as a mentor and a colleague. Someone who will represent you, fight for you, challenge you and push you but not belittle you or take advantage of you. He or she will direct your research to primarily address your future career. An ideal advisor-student relationship will develop into a mutually strong research environment and will last well beyond the student's graduate career.

You should ideally choose an advisor whose expertise matches your research interests. But more importantly you need to find the advisor with which you can have a strong working relationship. You don't have to see eye-to-eye on every issue but you need to have mutual respect. Like in marriage, an advisor might work well with one kind of student but not with another. You need to find the right advisor that fits your needs and personality. If the advisor relationship goes sour for any reason, you need to change advisors. Being stuck in bad advisor-student relationship is almost a guarantee of a disastrous graduate career.

14 comments:

  1. When I started grad school there was no web. So there was no way of finding details of research interests of a wide range of Professors as it is possible today. I simply selected the most senior faculty member of the university as my advisor. During my grad study, I really enjoyed working with him. He was very ethical and a pleasant person to work with. However, looking back, I wish had selected a younger, more aggressive advisor. My advisor used to sit on my papers for over 6 months each :-(

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  2. The "choosing a parent" analogy has another good point in it: Much of it is about luck. Depending on the field of study choices could be limited, and it is quite hard to get indications about the future working relationship.

    But some informed choice is still possible. When just-beginnning grad students ask me about how to choose an advisor, I usually tell them that among other things it is a good idea to grab some of the would-be advisor's current students for a chat.

    - Eldar.

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  3. It is always a good idea to work with a would-be advisor for a bit and see how it works out, before deciding on an advisor.

    Unfortunately at many schools, this is not an option and students have to pick an advisor before starting grad school, or very soon after. I think steps need to be taken to fix this.

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  4. Talk to older graduate students for advice, especially, those of the professor you are thinking of working with. They will have a much better idea of who is better to work with than you.

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  5. I am torn in commenting on this post. I agree with some of this sentiment -- choosing a bad advisor, or being stuck in a truly bad student-advisor relationship, can truly be bad for one's career. I was almost stuck with a bad advisor, but a more senior student warned me off my choice before I made a tremendous mistake. (This student had the poor advisor, and knew from experience...) I have since seen bad advisors hurt others' careers many times.

    On the other hand, I think you exaggerate the impact of the advisor dramatically. In the cases I know of, when the student was good, the bad advisor turned out to be a temporary setback, but by no means the end of the career, for the student. In my own case, I found I performed best when my advisor left me alone to do my own thing, and in fact I know of many cases where this was true.

    In the end, I think a student's graduate career is based on their own drive and talent than on anything else. Advisors can be helpful or harmful, but only in limited ways, and to suggest otherwise exaggerates their importance, and diminishes the students' responsibility.

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  6. Should a good advisor work with the student (writting joint papers etc.) or only supervise the work of the student? What is your opinion?

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  7. It depends on the student. Some students are talented independent spirits that can come up with research questions (and answers) on their own, and are best left to their own devices, with minimal supervision. Others (most?) benefit much more from working side by side with an experienced researcher and learning from that.

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  8. I think that being stuck with a bad advisor can really be detrimental for a lot of students. An advisor is not just an employer, but he is supposed to be someone who has excelled in some field for which you have an interest, and from whom you hope to learn tricks and research strategies for your future endeavours. I don't believe in advisors babysitting the students, but I strongly feel an advisor should share some passion with his/her students and be there for some active research discussion. Bad relationships or scarse interest in working with your students shows a lack of interest in being an academic role model, which in my opinion defeats the purpose of working in an EDUCATIONAL environment.
    I'd suggest reading the book "A ph.d. is not enough" by Peter J. Feibelman. It can be enlighting.

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  9. In academia, things work by recommendations, reference letters etc. If you have a advisor who will not say nice things about you in the letters he writes, then it can be a setback for academic career and promotions. Not so much if you decide to go to industry. So if your plan is work in academia, choose advisors with extreme care.

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  10. Definitely choose with extreme care. My relationship with my first advisor went from wonderful to an absolute nightmare overnight. I then found out from other faculty as well as members of the administration that the same thing had happened with this advisor and students in the past. In fact, I was told that when this happens, the senior faculty "just roll their eyes." Even at the university-wide counceling center (where I saw someone for a year to help me deal with what happened) I was told that "we see a lot of students here because of this particular advisor"! Fortunately, I changed advisors and it was at the beginning of my doctoral studies and I was able to move on - but I never formed a close relationship with my current advisor, mostly because I was so terrified that the same thing might happen again. I survived, but I was so shaken by it that it affected almost every aspect of my graduate school experience thereafter - it is only now that I am close to finishing (and after two years of being non-resident) that I can walk by this man without having a sick feeling in my stomach. An advisor can't affect everything, but they affect A LOT. There is really no way to predict if things will go sour, but if they do, make good use of the resources available on your campus and get out of the relationship as soon as possible if you can.

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  11. gee #10, don't you think you're over reacting just a little?

    "I survived, but I was so shaken by it that it affected almost every aspect of my graduate school experience thereafter - it is only now that I am close to finishing (and after two years of being non-resident) that I can walk by this man without having a sick feeling in my stomach."

    This sounds like a story from a women's shelter

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    Replies
    1. gee #11 Clearly you are sexist. To add to that, you may not have seen enough of the world, yet you don't mind being bitterly critical. "It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it" whoever said.

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  12. "In the end, I think a student's graduate career is based on their own drive and talent than on anything else. Advisors can be helpful or harmful, but only in limited ways, and to suggest otherwise exaggerates their importance, and diminishes the students' responsibility."

    I disagree complete. A bad advisor can:
    1. Steal your ideas
    2. Prevent you from publishing
    3. Spread awful rumors about you
    4. Try to tear down your self-confidence at every weekly meeting
    5. Force you to work on dead-end projects

    You obviously got lucky. Making a generalization like that displays ignorance. Been there, done that. I have an advisor like that. Now I'm going around him, but it's still hard to circumvent him.

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  13. What should one do if there is no choice for the student. For example, there are places where students are assigned to supervisors, or the supervisors choose them. Then nothing seems to work. Too busy supervisor, too busy to think about a problem. The academic atmosphere may be too rigid to affect a change. Should one just drop out or drop dead?

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