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How did you choose your PhD adviser?

  1. Apr 28, 2016 #1


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    I'm happily headed to an astrophysics PhD program in the fall, but without a good idea of who I want to work with.
    • What considerations usually go into choosing?
    • How did you personally go about it?
    • Any good stories?
    My PhD program involves short research projects with different faculty during the first two years, so I will have the opportunity to "try out" advisers. What should I be thinking during that period?
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 28, 2016 #2
    You must be compatible in both the personal as the professional level. The latter is obvious, you need to have some interest in the research you want to do for the advisor. Note that it's ok if the research is not your dream research, as long as you enjoy it.

    But the personal compatibility is most important in my opinion. An advisor can help you a lot, but can also torture you if you're incompatible. An easy example, if you're a laid back person and you're advisor constantly pushes you to do stuff. This will cause a lot of irritation with both of you. Or the converse, if your advisor let's you work very independently, but you need some more structure than the advisor provides. That is also not the best scenario.
    Or maybe you have an advisor which doesn't really care what you think as long as you do the work. Etc. etc.

    Try to get to know the personalities of the faculty members in your department. Try to find out with whom you'd get along great and with who not. Also try to find out whether you could personally handle an advisor that you don't really like (some handle it better than others).
  4. Apr 28, 2016 #3


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    I picked my first adviser based on the fact that he was an expert in the field I was interested in, very well published and respected. We got along horribly and were actively avoiding each other within a month. I actually had to transfer out of that school thanks to him. I picked my second PhD adviser based on the person and how well we got along, and found something that interested me in his work. That worked out great, he got me a great postdoc after I graduated, eventually got the job I wanted, and now I can research anything I want. You're not trapped in the field you pick.
  5. Apr 28, 2016 #4


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    It's important to have some crucial conversations with potential advisors before choosing one. Unfortunately I've seen a lot of students walk into the these relationships unprepared, hoping that all will work out because they don't have the tools to know what to look out for, and because of the power differential, they can often be afraid to speak up for themselves - particularly in the beginning.

    So some pieces of advice to help you make a good decision and avoid some pitfalls:
    1. Try to establish what will be expected from you as a student. This can vary between supervisors - some expect students to be independent on day1, others take a more nurturing approach. Ask about hours you're expected to keep, and what you're expected to do day to day. Try to set out a timeline for the project with specific milestones - classes to be completed, departmental examinations, conference abstracts, papers, etc. How much independence are you expected to have in defining your project direction and how will that change as you progress through the PhD? If you plan on having a part-time job, how many hours per week is reasonable to commit to it?

    2. Try to establish what you can expect from your supervisor. How frequently will you meet? How much time one-on-one is reasonable? Formal or informal meetings? What demands does your supervisor have on his or her time (teaching load, committees, conference organizing, etc.)? Will he or she take a sabbatical during your studies? Will he or she move to a different institution if the opportunity comes up?

    3. Are other students generally happy working with this person? Why or why not?

    4. You don't have to have the *same* personality as your supervisor, but you do need to be able to get along with this person. This means that you should feel comfortable enough to approach him or her with questions about your research project, and you should feel comfortable engaging in a conversation about the field.

    5. Consider advantages and disadvantages of working with this person. No one is perfect. And some people come with mixed benefits. A well-established supervisor may have connections and a big name, but little one-on-one time. A newly hired associate professor may not have as big of a name, but may have more interest in seeing his or her first graduate student succeed.
  6. Apr 29, 2016 #5
    I have jumped around with different advisers.

    The first one: I enjoyed the research but I feel like I was not a match personality wise in the group. I just did not like the vibe of the environment - it was not a bad one either; I just was not a match for it.

    The second one: I decided to stay in the field except I went from experimental to computational. The computational stuff was fun and challenging. However, I started to think of job prospects and whether doing the computational stuff was just something enjoyed out of novelty alone. I had a neutral feeling about my adviser. Then I got ran over by a car during this time and that changed a lot of things. I felt like crap for several months and spent quite a bit of time thinking about what I really wanted. I think this event really influenced my decision to change field.

    The third one (current one): After my mishap I found another group I wanted to work with that was in a different field of physics that I was working in before. I went back to experimental. I told my adviser what was going on with me and he seemed supportive of my recovery and I felt he provided the accommodations I needed. We get along well personally and so do all the other graduate students in the lab. In fact, he and I share a hobby. We also get along really well professionally. Additionally, the group has a vibe I highly enjoy. I felt that has helped me get motivated about the research that we do in the lab. I am going to stick with this group.
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