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Choosing a PhD adviser

  1. Apr 21, 2014 #1
    I just got into the mechanical engineering PhD program at my school and I am slightly confused about the best way to choose a PhD adviser.

    I am currently working with a professor from undergrad research that I would like to stay with, but he is not 100% confident about funding...

    Do all grad students typically get funded by their professors for research?

    Is the "popularity" of your professor in the field a big deal? Would an older, more experienced, and possibly more respected professor be a better PhD adviser?

    Should I just choose the professor who's research I enjoy the most, and not worry about funding or anything else?

    I still have time to pick my adviser, so if anyone has any advice on the matter that would be awesome.

  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 21, 2014 #2


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    Those are all good questions and as you likely already know there is no definitive answer that fits all.

    With respect to funding - it's best to get this sorted out as soon as possible. Generally speaking, details of the funding you can expect as a student come along with your offer of admission. What often happens is that you're guaranteed a set level of funding. For the bare minimum you will usually have to teach or mark (ie a teaching assistanceship) to earn part of that though. A supervisor with funding can pay you through a research assistanceship, either reducing or eliminating your TA load. (That's how it tends to work in physics departments anyways, engineering may vary.)

    With respect to your professor's popularity in the field... this is something to factor into your decision. Your supervisor is a major source of networking opportunities for you and will usuallly be the first person writing reference letters for you later on. But remember this is a single factor amid a cohort. It's not worth choosing someone you don't think you'll get along with, or whose work you're not interested in just to get into the "popular" circle. Remember a PhD takes a long time and who knows who or what will be popular when you're finished. And older doesn't always mean better either. Sometimes you can run into a situation where someone has established a name for his or herself and is simply hoping to coast through to retirement, while a younger person who doesnt' have a big name yet is well on the way there.

    Personally I'd put a lot more (but certainly not all) weight on the project itself. Do you understand it? Do you find it interesting? Do you see a clear path for how to get from its beginning to its end? And will you have the resources to complete it in a timely manner? The PhD in the end is about you and the work that you do. So it's important to have a project that you're happy to dive right into every day.

    As for the supervisor, think of this person as a mentor. Is he or she someone that you can learn from? Is this someone you would WANT TO learn from? Has this person successfully mentored other students in the past? Has this person helped previous students get post-docs or other jobs? Does this person provide the level of feedback that you as a student need?

    Sometimes it can be a tough choice. And regradless of what you do, no supervisor is perfect. But there are lots of really good ones out there.
  4. Apr 21, 2014 #3
    Thanks Choppy, that was very informative. In general do you think it is a bad idea to start a PhD thesis with a professor who is not tenured?
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