I want to know how I can shop for an advisor (between departments) that does his job: advises students without coercing them to put things in their dissertation they don't believe in or choosing topics for them so that they themselves can profit. I guess I want to find the signs of a not-bad advisor (not harmful) who is interested in the topic rather than a positively good advisor.

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    See this answer, especially the part from "the best way to find out about a potential advisor is to talk to their current students" until the end.
    – ff524
    Nov 3, 2016 at 21:53
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    No. If you get them alone, off the record (e.g. by Skype call, not email) they will warn you off. (What do they have to gain by covering for him?)
    – ff524
    Nov 4, 2016 at 1:45
  • It sounds like your major concern about potential advisors is the level of independence you would have, which is in most cases just a matter of preference (coercive advisors are much less common than "very hands-on, but that works for some people" advisors, you seem to not want either one). So whether an advisor violates ethical norms or not, you can ask "How involved is the advisor with respect to choosing research topics, conducting the research, and writing up results?" and there's no reason for a student not to tell you truthfully "very involved" or "hands-off, but there if you need him."
    – ff524
    Nov 4, 2016 at 2:08
  • @ff524 By covering for their terrible advisor, a student gains the peace of mind that there is absolutely no risk that saying anything bad about the advisor will ever get back to him/her. On the other hand, the student gains nothing by telling the truth except maybe a warm feeling from having done a good deed.
    – user124384
    Sep 27, 2017 at 20:31

2 Answers 2


With a few obvious exceptions, a "good advisor" is totally dependent on the fit with the student. You have some opinions already on what you are looking for, which is good, but not everyone may share your opinions, for example, I disagree with "choosing topics for them so that they themselves can profit" - I would much rather work with an advisor who expects to profit from the work I do (giving the student appropriate credit, of course), and would highly value the guidance on choosing a fruitful direction of study from a seasoned mentor rather than follow blindly my own naive assumptions. (note: I'm not saying your opinions/qualifications are wrong, just supporting my assertion that "good" is relative)

That said, here are my suggestions:

1) If your field allows it, I would highly recommend a graduate program that has some sort of "rotation" system where you spend time(1-3 months) with 2-4 different advisors so you can learn their styles and interests. Of course this isn't always an option, so...

2) Be honest about your expectations with any mentors you are interested in. You will get the most helpful response if you don't include value judgments in your expectations - don't ask "are you good at meeting regularly with your students?" Instead ask, "How often do you meet with your students? What does a regular meeting with you look like?"

3) Talk with current and former students of your advisors of interest; make your personal interests and expectations clear. Ask about all phases of their project, from initial planning to final writing. Find out how successful they have been publishing their work and if their expectations related to publication were met.

4) Make sure your methodological approaches agree with your advisor, not just research interests - if you believe strongly in quantitative methods and statistical analysis, but your advisor publishes on anecdotes and case studies, there is going to be friction and your advisor may not be equipped to mentor you.

5) Most of the stories I have heard about professors who are inflexible with their students or who have taken unfair credit for their students work are related to pressure around the time of tenure or in very large labs where projects are pre-defined - these situations might be fine for other students but given your concerns you may want to avoid them unless everything else makes it a great fit.

  • "avoid professors who are up for tenure now or in the near future" - The tenure clock is pretty short, so you're basically saying "Avoid professors unless they are either brand new or already tenured".
    – ff524
    Nov 3, 2016 at 21:59
  • @ff524 I clarified my point 5) a bit - I meant this as advice only because of the questioner's specific concerns but I think my original writing came off a bit harsh - Insulin69 seems to expect a high amount of independence from their future advisor, and my opinion is that such independence will be more likely found with a more established advisor.
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 3, 2016 at 22:20

By those criteria, the best advisor is the one whose students have the best placements - post doc, TT, or otherwise. It might be hell, but track record (considering attrition rate as well) speaks volumes. High attrition rates suggests bad environment. Low placement suggests inadequate advising and career-advance credit given. Faculty with a proven succession of placements must be doing something right.

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    I know faculty with very successful placements but who make their students MISERABLE and are horrible human beings in general. (Their attrition rate is not bad despite being so abusive because they only accept extremely ambitious students, who don't drop out because they are willing to put up with the abuse for the expectation of a great placement at the end of it.) So I would caution against looking at placement alone.
    – ff524
    Nov 3, 2016 at 23:20

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