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Graduate School and Advisor Advice

This is a collection of advice on Graduate School and finding an Advisor written for women in WICSE. There are opinions here from several different people; they're in roughly chronological order, since some of the later advice refers to the earlier advice. (In some cases, the names have been changed.)

For something more formal, see Marie desJardins's How to Succeed in Graduate School.

I'd like to preface this stuff by saying that the difference between a good advising relationship and a bad advising relationship can (but may not) make a big difference in how one feels about grad school. It could even make a difference about whether one stays in graduate school. (Note, I did not say "good advisor" or "bad advisor" because what matters is not the person, but how the student relates to him or her.)


Here is my list of what to look for in an advisor:
  • Schedules regular meeting with individual students (as opposed to saying drop in anytime, which makes the student have to look for the professor and guess when he/she is around)
  • Actually shows up for scheduled meetings
  • Funds students
  • Encourages students to write and submit papers
  • Takes students to conferences (with a paper? without a paper?)
  • Introduces students to colleagues when at conferences
  • Points out workshops, interesting mailing lists, professional societies, and current publications of interest to the student
  • Gives the kind of help *you want/need* for finding research topics
  • Is currently up-to-date on research in field
  • Allows students to take proper credit for their work
  • Writes good letters of recommendation
  • Helps students find jobs (recommends people to contact? contacts people for the students?)


Here are tips I wish I had known going into grad school:

Pick an advisor that has your management style. Do you like someone to walk you through every step, or who doesn't give any direction for months at a time?

Ask all other students in the group about what is great and what is challenging about the advisor. Take any negative comments VERY seriously. How might the negative aspects of the advisor affect you a year or two down the line? (Make sure to ask these questions in a private one on one setting, so the other grad student can be candid.)

How does the advisor deal with a big dissapointment? Does he breath fire at you, or try to make the best of the situation?

How does the advisor treat time off/vacation?

Is the advisor tenured, or a new prof? A tenured prof. has more power and could use that to help you, but may have less time. A younger prof. may have more time, though may work you hard to get publications out and prove himself.

What is the professor's personality and how does it fit with what you want? Is he nuturing and supportive? Does he cheer you on regardless of sucesses or failures? Can he focus on one topic long enough to give detailed advice?

There is no great rush. Spend months if you can figuring this out. Make sure you find the right advisor and group of graduate students for you. It's a big commitment. Unlike undergrad, the political and personal interactions are very important, sometimes more important than the quality of your technical work.


Ideally an advisor is like a good manager or mentor. When you are immersed in your own research, your advisor can keep the long view. They know how to think about your grad school "career." For instance, they should be helping you to structure your research so that you can get multiple publications out of it. Sometimes students think that they need to do a lot more work to get a publication when it's only a little more effort. Advisors become especially important when you start looking for a job. Your advisor can help to market you and your research. That said, advisors are just people and out of the five or ten great qualities you are looking for in an advisor you are lucky to get two.

One thing that's easy to forget is that there is a big difference between getting along with someone as person or even a colleague and getting along with them as a boss. Even faculty think of themselves as being colleagues with their students. Don't believe it. Once you become an advisee the relationship changes. Your advisor has a lot of power over you and your career. After getting tenure they don't have to answer to anyone else. So, be sure you really trust your advisor with your future. Things happen. You will always need a petition for something: to get an incomplete in a class, to withdraw for a semester, to retake an exam. And the petition will always need your advisor's signature. Usually it's just a formality, but my first advisor once held it over my head. I switched.

My current advisor is, as one of my office mates put it, like a really great lab partner. Have a technical problem and he will come down to the lab to fix it. He is naturally technically brilliant. In my first few years while I was still casting about for a thesis topic, this was great. I learned a lot about a lot of different technical areas. Then when I found a topic, he could really help me get through technical hurdles. He is less of a good mentor. His students do not learn the rest of the intangibles about being a researcher. At conferences, he doesn't always remember to introduce his students to important contacts. When visiting speakers come, he doesn't arrange for us students to meet with the speaker. We don't give practice talks. We don't write grants with him. When I started grad school I didn't realize how dependent I would be on my advisor. I had been out of school a couple of years, so I thought an advisor would be like a supervisor at work. It' s a much more intense relationship.

Of course, your advisor is only one aspect of your experience. Here are some things I would do differently if I were to do it again:

  • I would to go to group meetings and check out the atmosphere. Besides listening to student presentations, I would hope to see interesting exchange among the students about the state of the field. This is one way to find out if you would learn about the more subtle aspects of being a researcher.
  • I would check the time to graduation. This is a big indicator because the advisor is the one who gets the students to graduate. (Students, left to their own devices, don't know when to stop doing the research.)
  • I would find out how the advisor feels about students working on research that is not related to the advisor's. Some faculty are comfortable with this and some not. If you have a tendency towards interdisciplinary research, you need to know what your advisor thinks about it.
  • I would choose an advisor who is a good teacher. Good teachers are good communicators, and you need really good communication to have a good relationship.
  • Take older students' advice. I was a little to cocksure when I started out. I wish I had listened more.