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Assuming that one has begun a PhD program at a university which allows a student to choose an advisor after his/her first year in the program and the student has narrowed down to a couple of potential advisors, what is the etiquette for approaching them for advisor commitment? Specifically,

  • How do you get across that you aren't sure yet about him being your advisor and are fishing around before you decide without sounding rude?
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    Do ask multiple questions, @Nunoxic... We are short on numbers here: area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/16617/academia :) – Bravo Jun 27 '12 at 10:07
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    related (but exactly the same): academia.stackexchange.com/q/252/79 – TCSGrad Jun 27 '12 at 10:19
  • @shan23. I beg to differ (In fact, my answer is the accepted one :|). That question is regarding how to get in touch for the first time. The assumption is that the 2 of you don't know each other at all. This question is more to do with you knowing the professor, he knowing you and now you are about to make the first step to go meet him in his Office to discuss the possibility of he advising you for your thesis. – user107 Jun 27 '12 at 10:32
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    @Nunoxic - That was a typo on my part - I meant not exactly the same. I thought that anyone looking at this question for the first time might also benefit from the answer you gave to that question, as that would be applicable before this question came into the picture! – TCSGrad Jun 27 '12 at 11:59
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    @Nunoxic There are five good questions here with related but not intertwined answers. To split the question, edit this one so that you are only asking the first part, which matches the question title. Then create new questions for the second, third, fourth, and fifth parts of your question. – Ben Norris Jun 27 '12 at 12:05
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Advisors understand that students are fishing around - that's normal. What's less common (but possible) is students fishing around in wildly different areas. Just keep in mind that either an advisor is going to see something in you that will motivate them to try and convince you to work with them, or they'll view you as someone who needs to make up their mind first, and won't spend too much time thinking about you.

In that respect, matching up with an advisor is more like dating than an job interview, at least in the US :)

8

Ben Norris is basically correct—as advisors, we know that students have multiple options for choosing advisors, particularly in setups where the students pick advisors after their arrival. Therefore, we won't (or at least shouldn't) take it personally when someone tells us they're considering other advisors.

In general, however, you should also remember that these processes are often double-sided: in case of competition, the advisors also have a choice in who they want as their top choice. If you are overly hesitant, the advisor may choose another candidate who is more certain as a top choice. So, you should be honest if you're not immediately "sold" on working for a particular advisor, but don't be so negative as to make the advisor look elsewhere.

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The adviser already knows that you are not 100% committed to his or her research group. If the system lets students choose, then the advisers know the rules. The faculty in that department very likely made those rules. They know that you are considering other advisers.

It is never rude to consider other advisers. Some programs even require it. My graduate program required that I interview at least three potential advisers and rank them. The faculty would then be informed of the list of students who chose each faculty member at the first choice only. Faculty had to fill open positions from this first.

This system was implemented by the faculty a few years previous, when they became dissatisfied with an approach that left matching entirely up to students and faculty meeting and getting along. Faculty would then choose their favorites from all interested students. Usually, this meant that a small number of students were not chosen at all, which was not acceptable.

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    +1 for "interview at least three potential advisers and rank them". -1 for "informed ... first choice only". Gale-Shapley, anyone? – JeffE Jun 28 '12 at 2:05

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