Grad School Tips: Finding an adviser

By Rosa Guerra Resendez: The first step for finding an advisor is to reach out via email, even if you have not been admitted to the program yet.

Professor Angel Marti of Rice University in the lab with his students

In my last blog post, I talked about reaching out to faculty members when applying for graduate school. Surprisingly, this is the first step for choosing an advisor, even if you have not been admitted to the program yet. This time, I will elaborate further in the elements to have in consideration when looking for potential advisors, including how to get the best of rotations and how current grad can help you decide.

Introspection: What are YOUR needs?

This may sound like it has nothing to do with your potential advisor. However, having a clear picture of what your needs, interests, and goals are will help you in choosing a mentor. If you are aware of what your research interests are, you might want to find an advisor that works specifically on that area or that have funding for projects that might be of your interest. You might also want an advisor that will eventually help you meet your career goals. If you are interested in academia, you should look for a mentor that has had an extensive career and experience in teaching the discipline that you like, and who could give you advice on becoming the next principal investigator for your own group or point you to the right resources on campus to become an excellent academic, like the Center for Teaching Excellence. If you are interested in finding a job outside the academic field, such as an industrial career, consulting or even entrepreneurship, an advisor who has their own startup, acquaintances on industry or who is supportive of letting you pursue internships while getting your degree would be the best match for you.

Even if you are not quite sure yet of what your goals or specific research interests are, especially when starting grad school, do not worry! Pay attention to what you need in grad school. Do you need a supportive environment? Would you need support from your advisor to do extracurricular activities? Knowing your needs will help you decide on a mentor who can help you succeed and develop your full potential in your degree.

What to look for in potential advisors

There are plenty of characteristics you could look for in an advisor. For instance, you might want to get advised by a senior faculty member who is a well-known published scholar in their field and who has had plenty of experience as a principal investigator. However, this might not be a good match if you are also looking for someone who would be frequently available to you as most of the times senior faculty members are quite busy with and have big research groups that make it impossible for them easily approachable at any time. On the other hand, new principal investigators who are mostly associate professors in the department have established their research groups recently are probably more available to you during your first months in grad school and most of them have been awarded grants to start their research right away! The most important thing to keep in mind is that you want to work under a professor whose work inspires you and whose advice you would respect and listen to for the next couple of years, and who wants you to ultimately reach your goals.

Use rotations to your advantage

Most programs will give you the opportunity to rotate in different research groups during the first year of grad school. These rotations are the best way to have firsthand insight on the research group practices, general meetings, and overall environment between grad students and the principal investigator. You should be able (and feel comfortable) to ask questions to the grad students in the team about the advisor: how do they behave during one-on-one meetings? How frequent are these? Are they open to alternative research projects you might be interested in? You might also get invited to general meetings with the research group where you could see the interaction of the advisor with the graduate student providing research updates: Are they providing constructive criticism and relevant feedback that would help the investigation? In addition to the glimpse of research projects you might be able to do with the advisor, rotations make you aware of the everyday interaction between the students and the principal investigator and will indicate whether or not you are good fit for that environment.

Communication is KEY!

I cannot emphasize enough the big role communication has in a good advisor-grad student relationship! You want to feel comfortable and able to communicate with your advisor your ideas, feelings, and motivations for your research project. Above all, mental health and wellbeing can be challenged while pursuing a graduate degree, so you would want an advisor who is aware of this and can be supportive during stressful times. One piece of advice I saw in a thread on Academic Twitter is to ask potential advisors the question “What is the role of an advisor to a grad student?” and pay careful attention to their answer. If the answer they provide resonates with you, then you might be a good match to work with them!

Pursuing a graduate degree is a journey that you never make alone: your advisor will be your mentor and the person you would look up to for advice even years after you have obtained your degree! Having an open mind and informing yourself about the faculty members in your department, you can make the best decision that is right for you. Please remember: don’t be shy, ask the relevant questions always in a respectful manner, and be able to communicate your goals to potential advisors, and they will do their best to help you succeed in grad school.

Read more:

GCURS smooths the way to grad school

Grad Applications 101: Give yourself time!

Grad School Tips: Connecting with faculty

About the author: Rosa Selenia Guerra Reséndez is a GCURS alum, a Fulbright-García Robles Doctoral Scholar and active member of the Latin American Graduate Student Association at Rice University. She is a third-year graduate student in the Systems, Synthetic and Physical Biology program, advised by Dr. Isaac Hilton, and in 2017 earned her B.S. in Genomic Biotechnology from Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León. Read more about Rosa here.