I'm applying to a graduate program, and one of the application's requirements is to select at least one advisor, along with a reason for the selection. Specifically, this is the requirement:

In order to match you with a faculty adviser, tell us which faculty member's work most closely aligns with your interest.

And there is a list from which I should choose the advisor's name, and a text field in which I'm asked to write a reason for the selection.

I already know the advisors whom I'd like to work with, and the reason is simply that I'm interested in what they do (based on their recent papers/projects). But I'm not sure if this is what they're looking for, because they've already said this in the quoted text above, and also I will choose more than one advisor, and writing the same reason doesn't seem right.

My question is: What other reasons that one may have for selecting an advisor, other than having shared interests?

  • 3
    You could be more specific when writing down why you choose a particular advisor, by writing down what the actual shared area of interest is. Oct 17, 2012 at 8:18

5 Answers 5


Many don't speak about this too often, but with an advisor you are not only choosing a field of interest, but you are choosing a mentor. By all means, you want to "tick well" with him/her. There is not much good for a PhD student having a star researcher advisor whom they see once in a quarter and who is a sociopath on a personal level (this is a bit too extreme, but think about it as a continuum between extremes). Choose somebody with whom you will be able to work, whose example it is worth to follow, from whom you want to learn, not only the scientific stuff, but also workstyle, level of quality he/she strives for, etc. These soft reasons are often more important than anything else. For highlighting of all the examples of stuff you don't want to fall into (but will anyway :-) ), go and look at the PhD Comics.

P.S. I am speaking with a European-centric attitude, where you choose your advisor, since he/she will be your boss, rather than being assigned to one as it seems to happen in the US system. Still, the point is worth to consider. Germans have a good term for this, your PhD supervisor is your "Doktorvater", i.e., "doctor father". That very much speaks how the relationship should end up in an ideal case.

  • 2
    The US system is not "being assigned to an advisor," either. There is an element of free will in picking advisors in the US. But it's more often organized at the departmental level, rather than at the research group level, since admissions are also done at the departmental level.
    – aeismail
    Oct 17, 2012 at 16:40
  • @aeismail: obviously it's me having too little knowledge of how it works in the US system, I thought that prospective students apply to graduate school and then professors "pick them up" during a selection process of sorts. Still, I decided not to edit the answer. Let this comment stand as a disclaimer of my ignorance.
    – walkmanyi
    Oct 17, 2012 at 19:24
  • There is a selection process, but it's more of a "matching" process—students generally choose their preferred advisors and advisors choose their preferred students, and usually things work out.
    – aeismail
    Oct 17, 2012 at 19:50
  • 2
    Many US departments assign each incoming PhD student an "academic advisor"; one of their jobs is to help the student find a "thesis advisor". Only the thesis advisor is known to the outside world as the student's "advisor".
    – JeffE
    Oct 18, 2012 at 3:38
  • +1 for the "tick well" comment. I'd call it chemistry, respect, admiration, but it should be personal (not general). I'd ALSO add it's OK to choose a well funded researcher (it usually means well published, connected, etc.) and you won't go into student-loan debt, especially at the PhD level (perhaps funding is a non-issue at your university, but it's not true everywhere). Oct 18, 2012 at 15:18

Pick someone who is good at what you want to be good at. If you want to go into academia, look for someone who has published regularly, recently, and in quality journals. If you lean toward working in industry, find someone who has connections with industry. If you want to become a teacher, find someone who teaches regularly and has good reviews.

Having said that, I think they are just wanting to make sure you are a good fit for their department. They don't want to accept someone into their program if they're not interested in the type of research that is being done there.

Having said that, you can usually change advisors during the first year. So you probably shouldn't sweat this too much.


Some things I can think of (I'm a PhD student in my final year):

  1. An advisor may be famous in their field, which in turn affects your abilities to make academic contacts.
  2. An advisor may be known to be good at advising, to prioritise advising PhD students, make time when needed, etc. Having PhD students is good for an advisor, not least because PhD students produce papers.
  3. An advisor may be a pleasant person to work with.

It may be hard to find someone meeting all three. I know of cases where (1) is met, but where the advisor is so busy that they hardly have time for their PhD student(s) (now I need to write a proposal, please come back in three months) so that other seniors in the same group do most of the supervision in practice.

There are probably other factors that I'm not thinking of right now.


None of the answers addressed the funding dimension of an adviser, so I'll add it here. My PhD adviser was well funded, which allowed me to:

  • Incur no student-loan or other debt during the 5 years of my PhD (I went from bachelors to PhD, by the way).
  • Travel easily when I published papers at conferences.
  • Understand how research proposals are written, as the professor worked on a lot of them and we were involved in that process. Useful for when you'll have to write proposals IF you become a professor.

My guess is that this is not a binding selection, especially since you say you're asked to list at least one, rather than just one. This strikes me as being a "have you done your homework about our department" question.

That said, picking an advisor involves making sure that they are a fit both with respect to your research interests, but also your working style. That also means talking to their research groups: are they the kind of people you can see yourself fitting in with for the next few years? Do you see yourself "meshing" well with your advisor?

Unfortunately, those are issues you can only determine after you've been admitted. But making sure you've identified a few people that you can work with will make sure that:

  • You're not setting yourself up for disappointment, because you want to work for popular professor X, who can only take two of the ten people who want to work with her, but nobody else.
  • The department can try to match applicant interests with available projects—in part, again to avoid everybody trying to go into the same subfield, and so that the distribution reflects the distribution of available projects.

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