Selecting a Graduate School Advisor

Choose your grad school & your advisor

Your advisor and relationship with this person will decide a great deal of your success and happiness in graduate school. Therefore, it really should be your top consideration when deciding upon a school. If you can afford it, go visit your top 2-3 choices of schools, and meet with a potential advisor and some of their graduate students. Also, explore the town or city.

A great advisor will be a mentor in all senses of the word. They should regard you as a colleague in training and be willing to guide you intellectually and sometimes personally through graduate school and intensive research. This includes helping to find you funding, co-authoring research papers, and being an advocate in your dissertation research and write-up. A good advisor will pass on their intellectual tradition of how to successfully develop and conduct research, and how to fund that research as well. Look for an advisor who has reached tenure, as this will likely ensure that they will not leave in the middle of your research and generally means they are more established in terms of lab space, money, and respect. On the flip side, make sure the advisor will not retire during your studies.

Bad advisors are generally indifferent to you and your concerns. This usually adds years to the length of your study and may cause you to become frustrated and disillusioned. A horrible advisor may even take credit for your work and harm your reputation. You should not be afraid of or unduly uncomfortable around this person. Listen to your instincts, and if not your own, then those of the advisor’s current graduate students.

Questions you should ask a potential advisor:

  • How many students are you currently advising?
  • Is there adequate lab space?
  • What is the average time to completion?
  • What projects are you currently working on?

Questions for the director of graduate studies:

  • Is there money for conference travel?
  • Is there money for fieldwork?
  • What financial support and in what form will they offer you, specifically?
  • Does this state offer residency for education?

(In Indiana, you cannot claim residency if your main reason for moving here is to take classes. However, in states like New Mexico, you can gain residency after one year, even if you are enrolled in classes.)

Any other questions related to the general program that you have (What is the language requirement, if any), etc. Don’t ask questions that are answered on their website or handouts unless you are unclear about them. (Some are annoyed if you use up their time to answer simple questions).

Questions you should ask graduate students of a potential advisor:

  • Do their students get good jobs?
  • Do they give students enough time?
  • What is the average time to completion?
  • Does the advisor give credit for work?
  • Are they consistent in what they demands?
  • Are they reasonable about the amount of work that is expected?
  • Do you respect them intellectually and personally?

You should also ask general questions about how much rent usually is, what the social life is like, and anything else you may consider to be crucial to your well-being.

Pay attention to the attitude and tone of the students and advisor. Beware of a department full of unhappy students and ultra-competitive students.

You can avoid a bad advisor and find a good one before you attend graduate school. Contact potential advisors and their graduate students to get a feel for what your life may become. Not only will contacting a professor help you in admissions (if you make a favorable impression), but it will also help you decide which program is best for you.