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Choosing Graduate Advisor: Finding one's Interests

  1. Feb 26, 2015 #1
    I am a first-year PhD student who worked with a professor over the summer. I get along very well with her, and I would be happy to work with her if I was certain that my interests aligned with hers. She is a very popular advisor and has a lot of students wanting to work with her, so she gave me a deadline to decide whether I wanted to continue so that she can decide what to do concerning summer funding. If I work with her, I will have to work with her for the remainder of the PhD program.

    My problem is a personal problem: How do I know what area of research I want to do? It is difficult to decide for a number of reasons, including that the more I learn in graduate school, the more it seems to me that I need to know more still in order to figure out what area of research I wish to work in. My guess is that this problem has occurred for a number of those who went to graduate school. So here are my questions.

    (1) If you had this difficulty, how did you get over this hump to decide what research area to work in?
    (2) Do you have any suggestions to figure out what one's research interests are? What questions could one ask oneself, especially at this stage of being a still fairly ignorant graduate student?
    (3) What sorts of considerations might one have when it comes to deciding between advisor compatibility and uncertainty of whether research interests align? (If there is even an objective way to answer this question; I'm not sure there is.)
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 26, 2015 #2


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    I certainly had that difficulty. Fortunately in Canada the model is that students first enroll in an MSc - so you get a test loop of the track before you commit for the long haul. While successful in my test loop, I discovered that my first choice wasn't for me.

    I eventually decided on another field for my PhD. That was largely because towards the end of my MSc, I found I was looking forward to seminars on that topic more than any other, and I had a close friend who had also spend a lot of time looking into the field help to sell me on it. I began talking with potential advisors and as a result I had a fairly clear picture of what my PhD would look like before I even started.

    Well the first year of graduate school, in addition to courses, is really supposed to be about figuring this out. You're supposed to spend a lot of time reading, speaking with faculty and other graduate students. In fact in many ways you should have been doing that as a senior undergraduate. Some programs can be restrictive in allowing you to jump from group to group once you're admitted. Others are a little more flexible.

    The other thing that helps is to attend seminars. Weekly colloquia were mandatory for us when I was a student, even if the subject was outside of our field. Out associate chair even made us write up reports on what we'd learned. Not that anyone really read what we wrote in the end, but it helped to give us a little blurb on each of the different active fields in the department by the end of the first semester. (Despite this I still chose wrong on the first go.)

    You might also want to start by asking yourself if you had the freedom to make a choice without constraints - no social pressure, funding is not an issue, you have no implied commitments, etc. what would you chose in that case? Then work your way down by adding in the constraints.

    Another option might be to go the other way - from the ground up. What, realistically speaking are the option available to you? Make a list of supervisors and projects and then spend some time considering the strengths and weaknesses of each.

    It might help to also remind yourself that sometimes there can be more than one optimal answer. This doesn't help in arriving at a choice, but it can help to mitigate the stress that comes with making a decision.

    You might want to think about how much guidance you want or need on your project and how much each potential advisor is willing to give you. Some advisors prefer rigid weekly meetings to update progress. Others are more spontaneous and informal. Still others will more-or-less be absent until you defend. So your own level of independence becomes a key factor here.

    Along these lines you might want to think about how many students the professor currently has. Some of the more popular ones will have a horde of students, but in such cases the professor will have little time for one-on-one guidance. That can be a problem for students who need it.
  4. Feb 28, 2015 #3
    Thank you. This is helpful advice as always.
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