Grad School 101: Finding an adviser

By Emily Elia: Finding an adviser that is a good match can have a huge influence on your graduate school experience.

A faculty member congratulates his student upon her doctoral convocation.

The student-adviser relationship is one of the most important aspects of graduate school for a multitude of reasons. Your adviser is likely going to serve as your biggest mentor in graduate school, helping you navigate both academic and professional spaces in your field. They’ll often be one of the main sources for new opportunities of growth for you and your work. Many students develop projects with their advisers, work on co-authored papers with them, and apply for grants together. Your adviser is often a signal of what you are interested in as a scholar. Those in your field do not know your name yet, but if they hear that you are a certain scholar’s student, they will likely assume that your studies are at least somewhat related to your adviser’s expertise.

Finding an adviser that is a good match can have a huge influence on your graduate school experience. Many students begin their first year of graduate school already knowing who they want as an adviser; they likely applied and chose to attend their institution with the hopes of working with this person. Other students begin graduate school not yet knowing who their adviser will be. In any case, putting yourself out there as a hopeful mentee can feel nerve wracking and awkward, especially as a young graduate student just learning the ropes. Below are some tips to help make the process of finding your adviser a bit easier.

Do your research

Whether you are accepted into a cohort and need to find an adviser once you start grad school, or whether you are applying to programs in order to work with a specific person, it’s important to do your research before reaching out. Take the time to thoroughly explore their research interests and how those might dovetail with yours. Read bios and recent publications, and check out their research group or lab website. Make a short list of names, research topics and questions to ask them should you decide to reach out. An excel sheet is a good way to keep all your data organized.

Explore Programs

If you are in the process of applying to graduate school or are finalizing your choice, prioritize programs with good faculty matches. But what makes a good match? Programs that have faculty members with shared research interests. They are experts in their field, and you’ll develop your own expertise alongside them. Finding an adviser will be more difficult if the faculty in your program don’t tackle anything related to your interests.

With that said, you may have a more broad idea of what you’d like to research. Programs that speak to your broad interests are going to be a great fit! Matching with an adviser will be easier if programs have a number of faculty you would be happy to work with. Relatedly, it is often wise to apply to programs that have multiple faculty members that interest you. Graduate school is a marathon, not a sprint, and a lot can happen during the 5+ years of your program, including faculty leaving. Furthermore, your interests may shift, or you may learn that the faculty member you wanted to be your adviser is not the best fit for you. If this happens, you do not want to be stranded without any other adviser options. Try to apply to programs that have a couple potential faculty matches. Three potential matches is typically a good rule of thumb.

Learn the norms of your department!

Every department will have its own set of norms around adviser relationships. Speaking to more senior graduate students in your program is a great way to figure out how students generally select an adviser. More senior graduate students are also a great resource from information about what faculty members are like. As a new graduate student, you’ll start out knowing very little about the faculty members in your department. The older graduate students in your department can help you learn more about faculty, making your adviser search a little easier. You will likely find that experiences differ by the adviser, as well. All students of Dr. X may share similar stories while all students of Dr. Y may have very different experiences.

It is also important to know the timeline of declaring an adviser in your department. Your department may require all students to have an official adviser by the end of their third year, for example, while other departments want students to select an adviser much earlier on. Being aware of this timeline from the start will ensure that you are not rushed in making a decision.

It’s about more than just research.

Shared research interests are important, and so is working style. Think about what kind of manager you’d like to have, and what kind of working style and environment you’d fit best with. Do you prefer an adviser to provide a strong structure or a more casual working style? Will you be happy meeting with your adviser every week or a few times a semester? Some advisers will set up regular check-ins on your progress while others will give you a project with a future due date and leave you be until then. Mentor styles differ greatly amongst faculty members just like learning styles differ greatly amongst graduate students. It is important to know how you work best. Your adviser is going to have their own preferences, too. If your styles clash, working together may be more difficult. Take time to consider what will be best for you as a graduate student.

Departments may also have rules around the seniority of faculty members and their ability to serve as advisers in an official capacity. For example, some departments only allow full professors to serve as the chair of your dissertation committee. You may find great mentorship with a junior faculty member, but they cannot technically serve as your committee chair. Be sure to know who is able to serve as your official adviser. And remember that you can have multiple mentors! Your adviser is certainly not the only faculty member that you can turn to for feedback, advice, or even research opportunities.

Don’t be afraid to reach out!

You may know exactly who you want to be your adviser, and you may be confident that you work well together, but you may still feel uncertain or nervous about how to approach making the connection - and that’s OK! Keep in mind, if you want a faculty member to be your adviser, you are going to have to be upfront with them. Reaching out on your own behalf is certainly a skill that you will acquire throughout graduate school. It can feel awkward at first, but it will get easier the more you do it!

Don’t forget that this program admitted you and they believe in you! If you have created a good relationship with faculty from the start, they may be expecting you will join their research group. When students are admitted into graduate programs, faculty members may already have an idea of which incoming students they may work with due to shared research interests. Of course, your research interests may change (which is okay!), but it is not uncommon for some faculty to have already taken an interest in new students before their first year officially begins. Your hopeful-adviser probably wants to work with you, too!

About the author: Originally from Massachusetts, Emily Elia is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in political science. She graduated from the University of Alabama in 2018 and currently studies comparative politics with a focus on Latin America.