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How do you assess a potential advisor?


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Hi everyone!


I am currently looking into a potential advisor to see if he would a good match. Like many other applicants, finding the right match is really important to me and where I should go for graduate school. I met this one Professor that is a little bit on the eccentric side. I really like some of his research and he seems to be well funded. But his quirkiness bothers me a little bit, I don't want to look back and say these were red flags that I should've taken seriously.


So my question for you guys are, what methods do you use to see if this person would a good advisor and the right match for you? What questions should I be asking to get the best picture? I know a lot of what is a right match is personality dependant, so I'm really just interested in the ways fellow gradcafe members go about deciding.



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For me: the advisor has to be able to laugh at my (innocent) jokes. It's a deal-breaker otherwise. :P


I'm not just saying this, either. I was ready to turn down a school based on this incompatibility.

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It's a tricky thing to glean from a meeting with the prof directly. I'd say that the richest source of knowledge might be to ask the department's grad students. If there's an unsavory history to this prof's treatment of grad students, it may be the only way to know for sure.

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I've thought about this a lot because I went into grad school with advice from this site and others that the advisor-advisee relationship is like a marriage. Five years (or more) is a long time to develop a professional (and personal) relationship with someone.


And now that I've been in grad school for a couple of years, I can say that that is definitely true! How I chose my current advisor (whom I totally adore):


1. His reputation. He recently won a "lifetime achievement" award in our field.

2. He has a ton of grant money. That means he knows what he's doing (or, at least, has convinced others that he knows what he's doing).

3. His post-docs and advisees have said things like, "I love him!" or "He's the best boss I've ever had" or "He really listens to me."

4. He's down-to-earth, which to me means he wears what's comfortable (jeans and t-shirts), he doesn't "talk down" to anybody, including grad students and undergrads, and he doesn't talk using big words to make himself seem smarter. This was an important personality characteristic to me because I just can't stand uppity people.

5. He's really smart. He's casual and friendly and all, but when he's putting on his "critical academic" hat, he's sharp and doesn't hold back the questions, comments, and "constructive" criticisms.

6. He has grown children, so he understands (to some extent) what it's like to juggle family and academic life.

7. He's happy and enjoys his job and interacting with grad students.


I could go on... but, as the OP mentioned, the most important thing is the right match. My advisor is the right match for me. He may not be a good match for someone else. So, I suppose some things you won't know until you try it out. But, you could follow your gut... do you feel comfortable around this person? Does s/he seem like someone who will help you become a scholar? Teacher? Or whatever it is that you want to be?


I guess it could also be like dating... are there any red flags? Things that you can't stand? I worked closely with another professor. She's a little quirky. It doesn't bother me necessarily. In fact, over time, I've become fond of her, so I suppose I tolerate it.


Good luck with finding the right match for you! :)

Edited by wildviolet
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I need to upvote wildviolet's post when mine respawn! :D


Another thing I've heard a lot is see where the professor's recent grads have gone. Do they go into academia? Or to the kinds of research positions you're interested in? Make sure to "scale" this, e.g. if 30% of grad students go to academia in your field, it's still a good sign if only three of their ten recent grads went into academia!

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I have an eccentric adviser and I love his eccentricities.  It hasn't really affected the mentoring relationship, and I find him charmingly funny.

But with that said, there's no "method," really.  It's not an algorithm.  It's just human connection.  Do you feel that you click with this person, that you have a reasonably good working relationship, that your values and interests and expectations align well enough?  Don't look for perfect; there's no such thing.  Your adviser will always have a quirk you hate or a personality characteristic you loathe or some tic that drives you nuts.  But so do your mom and your friends and your dog, probably.  Nobody's perfect.

I personally chafe a little at the "mentoring relationship is like a marriage" advice.  Overall, it's probably good advice.  But my primary adviser and I are both private, kind of personal folk and so I would not characterize our relationship like a marriage at all.  In fact, I wouldn't even really say that we are friends.  We are friendly; he is the kind of person I would like to be friends with, and we will probably be friends once I graduate.  I know him and his personality quirks and working style very well, and I'm sure he could say the same for me.  But our relationship is a sort of very warm arm's-length relationship, and that works for both of us.  I'm married and it in no way whatsoever resembles a marriage, in my eyes.


BUUUUT I have heard many other grad students use this analogy, so I think I may be in the minority here.

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I'm closer to julliet on this. My advisor is definitely eccentric. He's also incredibly well-known in the discipline, which means he's super busy and has a boatload of external commitments. I knew this going in and went with it anyway. Sometimes I wonder if I made the right choice, but that's only because I had good connections with other POIs back when I was applying. I might actually be friends with them if I were their student. My advisor and I have a policy of not discussing our personal lives unless it's absolutely necessary (as in, major personal life crisis infringing upon my work time and forcing me to move deadlines kind of necessary). Anyway, there are lots of people in my department that can't imagine working for my advisor and I totally get that. It really is a very, very personal decision.

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Thanks for all the advice everyone! I'm talking to his current grad students and they're actually giving him great reviews. They are acknowledging his quirky traits but still saying he is great to work with, so I'm taking that as a good sign

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