59

While accepting an offer to grad school, one is basically entering into a lasting relationship with one's adviser - most likely, someone whom the applicant has never met before, and the only exposure has been through the potential adviser's website/publications. It is in the interest of both parties to ensure (to the greatest possible extent) that there are no personal/professional traits of either that hamper the formation of a pleasant working relationship - no-one would want to go through the ordeal of having to change advisers midway!

While the faculty has a chance to have a good look at the applicant's profile as well as his motivations (through his grades and SOP), the applicant doesn't have a similar opportunity. So, I'm interested to know what parameters can be used to gauge a potential fit. I've thought of the following:

  • Past students:
    1. Did anyone ever drop out/change advisers midway, and if so, for what reasons? These would be a bit hard to find though, as I don't expect the faculty concerned would list them on their website. It would be great if anyone could let me know how to find out the list of incoming students to a department for any year.
    2. Publication rate, taking into account the venues where they were accepted.
    3. Time taken to graduate - though I accept this is more dependent on the student, a median figure should be telling ...
    4. What they did post Ph.D. - did anyone get tenure if they went into academia, or is almost everyone unable to break out of being a post-doc?
  • Tenure status: I'm a bit unsure about this, so wanted the community's opinions about it. Just so that I'm clear, I'm only trying to calibrate the applicant's expectations about the working style of his potential adviser - and hence need to know to what extent are the following "typical" assumptions valid.

    Tenured professor

    A full professor is more likely to get grant funding, hence less time spent on TAship - but could also mean less time/effort spent on interactions with students (either being busy with other projects/talks, or due to more commitments to family at that age).

    Tenure-track faculty (Assistant profs)

    More likely to be young and energetic, and could translate to more time spent on one-to-one discussions with grad students - but funding may prove to be an issue, and may have to be on TA for a longer period.

What other factors would be relevant in this matter, and to what extent am I correct/incorrect in either the factors considered, or for undertaking this exercise at all?

30

There are a few things I would generally look at in a potential advisor beyond just their research/publications:

  • Who were the co-authors on their papers? Are they actively collaborating with people in your field - people who could be potentially useful for post-doc posts, etc.? Do their students often show up as primary authors on publications, or are they invariably buried in the middle of a long list of authors?
  • Personality. This goes beyond just do you like the person. Do they prefer frequent updates, meetings and the like, or is the occasional check-in enough? Are they a morning person and you prefer working nights, or the other way around? If you send a long email, would it get answered, or do they not often fail to answer emails? I've had some professors who I'm very fond of nevertheless would make poor advisors because of wildly disparate working styles.
  • How are their students funded? Your funding stream can have serious impact on your completion time and productivity. If every semester, its a desperate Pick-N-Mix of funded side projects, TAships, etc. you're going to have a lot on your plate that, while potentially an interesting experience, will slow down your progress.
  • Where do their students end up? Do they have decent career trajectories? Are they supportive of alternative paths like industry or government?
  • Rank and age. A young professor might be more aggressive and eager, on the other hand they're less established, don't necessarily have the same level of institutional support, and if they're not yet tenured, its possible they'll disappear. An older professor may be more established and stable, but might not use "cutting edge" techniques, or feel less of an internal drive to publish.
16

You listed it in your question, but just to state it as an answer, you will always want to look into any professor before joining their lab. This includes:

  1. Looking up their publications and becoming familiar with their research style; do you agree with how he performs research? Does his thinking style seem similar to yours?
  2. Speaking with current and past students from that lab and getting their sense of what it's like working for that professor
  3. Talking with the professor yourself and seeing whether there's a personality match
  4. Simply looking up their name online and seeing what comes up

I would suggest that tenure status is not as important when deciding what lab to join, unless the professor is having difficulty securing continuous funding. You can ask about funding sources when speaking face to face. Most professors are equally dedicated to their job whether they have tenure or not.

Remember, you will be spending numerous years with this person, and there's a very high cost of switching professors as the years add up. Make sure that you not only like their research but you also get along with them.

15

If you can get any information, don't underestimate the importance of simple personality factors---do you expect to be able to get along personally with your potential advisor? This is hard to gauge if you don't have the chance to meet the person, but talking to current or former students may give you some idea.

Also, I'd add to your list how your advisor is viewed in the rest of the field. Not just on the quality of research (though that's important too), but again, how much people like your advisor personally. Again, a small factor, but having other people in your field like your advisor can make a difference.

Unless you have a very close decision and need a tie-breaker, I'm not sure it's worth trying to read the tea leaves about what tenure status implies, since I suspect the person-by-person variation is greater than the between group variation.

  • 2
    I understand that I may get an idea about the adviser from former students, but I don't see how to understand how the "rest of the field" views him - I don't expect other faculty members to even talk to a grad applicant about a colleague, no matter what they might have to say! – TCSGrad Feb 16 '12 at 11:49
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    +1 for pointing to personality factors (as you cannot work with someone with whom you cannot work)... Sometimes it is a matter of preferences, but sometimes there are great researchers and bad persons/managers at the same time. Asking their students for opinion (preferably f2f or, at least, telephone) may be crucial - to gouge their opinion (an their general well-being). – Piotr Migdal Feb 16 '12 at 11:57
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    @shan23: Yes, finding out how other people in the field view someone is a bit hard. If you're at a school with other people in the same field, you might be able to talk to them. And if you ask other faculty members (ideally, I emphasize, at a different institution) the right question---not "do you respect this person" but "do you think this person would be a good advisor for me" may be revealing. Not because of what they'll literally say (no one is going to tell you this person is terrible), but how they say it (how enthusiastic they are, for instance) may tell you something. – Henry Feb 16 '12 at 12:39
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    @Henry Personality traits are very important. I always was at loggerheads with my first adviser because he was not good at people management and not a people person at all. All he was interested in was to get tenure and by any means possible. My next advisor was tenured and I am still with him for my PhD. He is a joy to work with and very laid back yet supportive like the rock of gibraltar. I enjoy working with him and want to be a post doc in his lab! – dearN Feb 16 '12 at 14:26

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