Applying to universities with good PhD programs is only a third of the application process. Most students end up ignoring what is considered a “good” advisor and assume their achievements (GPA, publications, winning your March Madness bracket, blah blah blah, what have you) will automatically garner them that baller PhD advisor. As PhD Comics often states, selecting the right advisor is like being in a long-term relationship. If you ask me, it is more like arranged marriage – find the word on the block about your future spouse’s family, and then meet and question your future spouse.
Ending up with a well-funded advisor is not a draw of luck but about doing your homework smartly on the advisor and the PhD program. How do you end up with a good advisor (I didn’t want to be stuck taking care of their dog while they are in Magens Bay for some conference. True Story.) and in a good research lab (Not doing support/maintenance/code-monkey IT work but doing actual research, the entire reason I am there for)?
When I decided to pursue a PhD while working as a software engineer for a year at a major corporation, I didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot in my PhD program, be in a bad situation, and end up bitching (nicely, of course) about my disastrous PhD experience on some forum or blog. Instead, I opted to do research – research on the programs I was interested in – the professors, their peers, their funding, their citations, and their graduate students. I wanted to minimize risk and avoid bad situations that plague some PhD students. I have split this blog post into two sections (like an engineering publication).
The first section details the process involved in finding the
rich advisor. The second section is about interviewing your prospective advisor when they invite you for a campus visit at their university. A lot of these thoughts and questions are logical but I have come across too many prospective PhD students who fail to do their research and homework on their advisor, their funding situation, and the PhD program. Then, they complain about how life is hard because they didn’t do their due diligence and got duped.
WORD ON THE BLOCK
Finding a university program and a professor whose interest matched mine wasn’t difficult, US News College Rankings list is a decent place to start, though some schools are known for X field more than A-Z fields and this doesn’t get reflected in those rankings. I will go over my process of finding a good professor (with funding) in my field and contacting them. Funding was the top priority for me as a PhD student (should be everyone’s). My process might be skewed towards the engineering discipline.
This is obvious, I quickly searched a professor’s name on Google Scholar to see how well they have been cited and what they are known for. I stayed away from advisors that published in mediocre to bad journals and conferences or are one hit wonders. If they are well cited and publish in top peer-reviewed journals/conferences frequently, they are more likely to have some kind of funding.
NIH and NSF make it easy to find out the funding situation of a professor. NIH’s Project Reporter reveals how much funding a professor has and the duration of their project. NSF has a similar tool called Award Search. I used these tools exhaustively to find out funding track records of the professor I was interested in. I didn’t want to be a TA forever because my advisor had no money, which would be indicative that they aren’t producing anything novel in their research field.
Another great way to find out about a professor’s funding is to read the
Acknowledgements section in their most recent publication. Not only it helped me skim through a professor’s most-recent publication but it also hinted at their funding sources, and then I used Google (I’ve learned a lot by using Google and Wikipedia, and stopped assuming how the world works). It is amazing how many prospective students I meet that do not research their future advisors and are choosing to do research in their prime (Research Fail).
The offer letters I received, generally after being admitted into a PhD program and before the university visit, told me precisely if funding for all my PhD years were guaranteed as a combination of Research Assistantship or Teacher’s Assistantship (TA). One school asked me to pay tuition for the first semester so I could “settle in” and then find a research group to fund me (What a joke, no one in the right mind should even consider this trap).
PhD dissertations available on ProQuest or other free library sources from the professor’s lab can be helpful in understanding the direction of their research lab and possibly, what will be the next set of funding related to.
When looking at research labs, I put an emphasis on finding that research lab’s professor’s collaborators. The more collaborators an advisor has, the more outgoing, organized, courteous, and respected they are amongst their colleagues. Outgoing is very important as holding editorial positions, getting funding (someone who you networked with might review your grant submission or critique your publication), and recognition works purely on networking. Also, if the advisor runs out of funding or can’t fund me, then I could piggyback on their collaborator’s projects and still get a stipend. (Wow, this is how it exactly happened and I ended up with two advisors). I searched a professor’s name in social-networking sites such as Biomed Experts (Research Gate, Academia.edu, Zotero, and Mendeley are the newer ones) to get an idea of whom they are collaborating with. Google Scholar also helped me find a professor’s co-authors/collaborators.
Advisors that are renowned tend to have funding as well. An easy way to find out if the professor is well regarded in their respective fields is to look for their title in societies such as IEEE and ACM. The title is indicative of how their peers view the professor’s work. This may not be valid for young professors. Professor’s CV (found on their website or Google) also discloses their funding and if they are reviewers/editors of prominent journals and conferences. This means they are acclaimed.
I searched for the titles of professors in societies such as IEEE and ACM to figure out if they are well regarded in their field. The title indicated how their peers viewed their work. Though, I did realize that this might not be valid for young professors who are not tenured yet.
After doing my homework on a prospective advisor, I had to email them to find out if they are looking for any students to join their research labs. I didn’t want to join a PhD program just to find out that the advisor I want to work with has a full lab or is going on sabbatical or even worse, has no funding next year. I threaded a polite and succinct email that could be read on a smartphone i.e. all text, no random PDFs of my CV attached to the email or zip files of my project (lol, who does that?).
My email to an advisor was simple:
- quick introduction of myself including my name, my degree at the university I attended, and my interest in their university’s program,
- my goal for PhD such as “specialize in computer vision techniques,”
- a listing of two my most relevant projects and courses,
- mention that I was seeking admission into their program and asked if they were accepting new PhD students in their group,
- a link to my website showcasing all my projects in undergrad/Masters,
- signed off the email sincerely and inserted a 10-line text form of my concise CV, which ended with a link to my website.
With this type of email format, I got a 65% response rate from all the professors I contacted at different universities and I had two phone interviews before I applied to their programs, despite having no publications to my name.
(There could be a better format).
In my statement of purpose for a university’s application, I mentioned all the professors that were taking new students (Obviously, I wouldn’t apply to Prof. Cuervo’s lab at University of Margaritaville if he isn’t taking any students this year. Applications are expensive. GRE scores are sent to a university on a disc by the ETS. Each disc contains 100s of student scores and yet, they charge $20 per student for sending their scores to 1 university. It’s a rip-off.). Once I applied to their PhD program, I wrote another concise email asking them to follow up on my application.
I treated this as the most important part of the process of selecting my advisor. Once I got invited to visit a university, the chances are I was already admitted. Some schools had already sent me my admissions/offer letter for PhD. During these visits, I met with several possible professors and they all tried recruiting me into their research labs (yay!).
Well, there were a couple of professors who ignored me, and I ignored them too. (Mutual ignorance breeds mutual distrust – Andrew Carnegie, Wealth, 1889). Contrary to popular belief, the ball was in my court and not in the professor’s. I didn’t have to impress them (I am already visiting!), but they had to impress me. It was time to find out the word on the block about these professors and question their operations. It’s always surprising to meet prospective PhD students who do not ask these seemingly logical questions (because they are nervous or scared to ask their future advisor and start their PhD by being a goat) and risk getting screwed over in their PhD.
During my visit, I interrogated the professors with these questions listed below (by no means this list is exhaustive). I figured professors who are disciplined will answer all my questions really well and this is a great sign of the ideal advisor. It is evident that research requires discipline – solving a problem for years, publishing, collaborating, writing grants, networking, logistics, and managing graduate students. Any professor that tried to circle around my question I became skeptical of (and believe me, there were a few of them).
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR FUTURE ADVISOR
I asked these questions casually with a smile on my face, while I interspersed them with related questions about the professor’s research. It has to be salt-and-pepper, can’t just outright interrogate your future advisor (not pulling nails – insert clip of best movie interrogation scene – Syriana). Professors I met gave me a little glimpse into their research and current projects, which helped me ask more questions about their research. This helped me with the salt-and-pepper process. Professors are not going to eat me for asking these questions. Actually, they are genuinely nice.
What is the attrition rate? How many graduate students join this university’s PhD program and how many leave with a PhD degree? Almost most professors I talked with gave me different answers but I understood if the PhD program is survivable.
What journals and conferences do you publish in? Look out for top names and match them with Google Scholar. One of the professors I met with lied.
What is the publication rate for PhD students? A good/disciplined advisor will say something to the effect of “I’d like it if they could publish at least once a year, but sometimes they end up publishing 2 in one year and nothing in another. It’s logistics at times.”
Is there funding for your PhD students to attend national/international conferences if they get a paper accepted in? Can they still go to the conference if they don’t submit anything to it? This question told me if the advisor likes sending their students to attend conferences regardless if they had papers or not. If they send their students to conferences who don’t have any papers, then they care about their student’s research development. Jackpot.
Does this PhD program hold any seminar series or does your group hold any journal clubs? If the program I am looking at holds seminar series and has professors from other schools giving talks, then the program is well regarded. If the research lab holds a journal club, then the professor has enough time to be up to date on new research breakthroughs. I didn’t want to end up with a professor who uses techniques from the 80s-90s, its bad for developing novel techniques – the entire point of doing research in the first place.
What is the time-to-degree for a PhD student in your research lab? This was the most important question I asked, and I carefully watched the professor’s reaction to it. Some professors gave me a straight answer, “usually my students take 4-5 years.” This means the professor is disciplined making sure you graduate with all your requirements in time, and will not make you solve something practically impossible like invent a pokéball. One of the professors I met with answered with “it depends on the student and their research.” Surely this is true, but it also means that this professor will never be happy with you even if you do catch ‘em all. Tsk, tsk, bad sign.
Have any of your students left your research lab without a PhD? This is a killer question and professors hate it, probably because it brings back irreconcilable differences with one (or many) of their students. It’s a behavioral question. Look out for sighs or an angry/nervous face for asking that question. One of the professors sighed, “this is a good question… sometimes I have funding issues.” Bam!
What are the major grants you received? I wanted to know if the professor is applying for new grants or renewing old ones. I already know if they have money based on NSF/NIH grant search tools. This question also gave me an idea of what I could possible be working on for my dissertation.
How many students do you advise? How are they financed? Do your advisees get the TA if you don’t have funding? I asked this question to find out if I would still get a stipend when research funding ran out. One professor said that the department assigned the TA for their class – bad sign. I didn’t want to starve or behave like this (Simpsons gif). If the professor has too many students, they will be super-busy – I would most likely be on my own when solving research problems and the advisor won’t care for obstacles/limitations of my solution. They might only care to publish. After all, I am entering a “publish or perish” world.
Where do students go after getting their PhD from your research lab? How do they find this job placement? I wanted to know if the professor had any industry connections. If the professor says that most of their students end up doing post-doc, then either they have no connections or their students really want to be in academia. A quality research lab will have students placed in all types of industries.
How do I join your research lab? Do I have to take your class or do an independent project? I got a variety of different answers from professors because they all do things differently. I tried to minimize risk here. Here are some answers I got and my skeptical thoughts on them. “You need to get an A in my class” – what if you are a bad professor or hate my guts and give me an A-, can I still join because I have research potential? “You need to do an independent project with me” – so I work for you for free and then you can reject me unless I get you a publication out of this independent project (International students fall prey to this one). “You can start out as a TA, work on an independent project that we can decide on, and then based on your interest you can sign onto a research project” – what a brilliant answer, gives me hope that this advisor is willing to reconcile any differences with me.
CROSS CHECKING WITH OTHER GRADUATE STUDENTS
This was an eye opening process for me. Asking similar questions to the graduate students of a professor’s lab brought out inconsistencies in the professor’s answers. Obviously, I believed the graduate students more so than the professor – how can you ever beat first-hand experience? I always met with the graduate students of the professor that I was interested in, typically, over lunch or dinner. They also told me about how the department is run, which can be important sometimes. I am surprised how much the administrative assistant helps me with my paperwork for conferences or the PhD program. Looking back, I can see that a department was disorganized based on how they organized the visit for prospective PhD students to their program. The graduate students that I met during my visit were always candid about their answers.
What is this city/town (_where the university is located) like? Do you socialize with other graduate students?_ I asked this question to find out if these graduate students of the professor that I am interested in stay in lab all day and night. If they know places around the city/town, they are more likely to do other things on the weekend besides research work. I’ve had blank responses and enthusiastic responses such as “downtown is lively, rock climbing is fun on the weekends, and we go to happy hours sometimes.” Happy hours are during the weekdays – most of the graduate students in that lab leave at a good time such as 6pm.
If you hit roadblocks in your research, who rescues you? Presumably, it will be your advisor but I got answers similar to “sometimes the professor will help you.” This gave me an idea how closely the professor works with their graduate students. One graduate student complained about how their advisor didn’t have any advice for them because they are too busy trying to grab funding and/or build their networks or they seem out of touch with newer techniques.
What is the worst part about this department and the research lab? Which professors should I stay away from? I processed any answer I got from the graduate students. A few of them complained about lack of socials. Surprisingly, a couple of graduate students said that the professor I was interested in was kind of a jerk. Obviously, I didn’t join that lab.
Does your advisor prefer you to figure out solutions and then present to them? Or do they want you to discuss possible approaches with them first and then come up with a solution? Or do they just want you to follow their idea and solution? Working with different professors in undergrad and during my Masters, I wanted to know the working style of the professor and find out if it matched my style. Also, I didn’t want to be in a lab where the professor made me follow his solution and wasn’t open to any new suggestions. I experienced this in my Masters, where the professor’s solution failed and he had no way to backtrack on it, and I ended up wasting 4 months on something that didn’t work (Hurray!).
Would you have picked a different school or a different advisor? Most graduate students said they wouldn’t pick a different school and highlighted the strengths of the program or their advisor’s research. Some students had mentioned how they switched advisors and this was good for me to know that it was possible.
How often do you publish? Do you go to conferences even if you don’t have a paper submitted? I asked this question to figure out if the professor’s answer was consistent with what their graduate students said.
Has anyone quit PhD out of your research lab? Again, trying to figure out inconsistencies with the professor’s answer, plus, the graduate students gave me more information as to why someone left their lab.
What is the funding like? How many times did you have to be a TA so far? For one program, the graduate students gave me different answers than what their professor gave me – “I’ve been a TA 3 times in 4 semesters because the professor’s grant application was rejected.” Usually, their answers matched.
Is your advisor up to date on techniques in their field? I figured all graduate students would unanimously say “yes.” On the contrary, almost everyone said “no.” Most advisors tend to be busy and they rely on their graduate students to keep up to date. In my experience, young advisors are up to date with new techniques. This is important because publishing in top -journals requires some novelty factor to the methods.
How did you join your research lab? Did you take your advisor’s class or do an independent project to prove to them that you wanted to be part of their lab? Again, looking for consistencies and possible cover-ups.
Where do students go after getting their PhD from this research lab? I wanted to see if the alumni of the research lab do post-doc because they have no industry offers (speaks poorly of the program and the advisor’s industry connections) or if they are genuinely interested in academia.
How long, on average, does it take for a graduate student to graduate from your research lab? There were a lot of inconsistent answers here. Some graduate students said that it took a few students 7 years to graduate, while their professor told me 5 years (probably quoting the minimum number of years, lol).
Do you co-author any papers? I think if you co-author papers, you do have more papers but they are still not first-author, which is worth more for your PhD success. Co-authoring papers could take up unnecessary time and prolonging graduation time. If the graduate students all were required to co-author papers, I correlated that with their lab’s time-to-degree statistic.
How long do advisors take to review your manuscript for a conference/journal or does it collect dust on their desk? I wish I asked this question because this scenario bit me in the ass. I wrote a journal paper that collected dust for 10 months, it finally got published after a lot of pestering (my advisor’s name wasn’t on that project’s grant so he didn’t care for the manuscript). Also, if an advisor replies with their comments for a conference paper that has a deadline the next day, then I’d be pulling all-nighters. All-nighters are unhealthy, totally doable, and give a fake sense of progress.
Do they respond to your email? I have worked with some professors who did not understand the concept of replying to emails. What a waste of time working for them, not replying to work-related emails is negative productivity for all parties involved. I have had professors say to me “I got your email” (and, that’s it? I don’t need an acknowledgement from you telling me that Gmail worked). It was easy for me to know which professor was on top of their inbox based on their response to my initial contact email prior to applying to their PhD program (see Section). Responding to emails can set up meetings in which progress can be made!
How often do you have status meetings? I wanted to work with a professor who had regular status meetings. These meetings would allow active discussions about research solutions, show them that I am not slacking off (gain their trust), keeps the advisor in the loop, and above all, help with my PhD progress.
DISCUSSION & CONCLUSIONS
Every publication has an end discussing possible limitations of the presented methods and future research directions. Doing my research when selecting a PhD research group helped me avoid some bad situations in my PhD experience that could’ve dried out all my enthusiasm for research.
Hope this has been useful to the reader in figuring out how to select a good advisor for their PhD and good luck!