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Blog Roundtable: What is important when picking your adviser/commitee?

November 4, 2011

This blog roundtable is part of a series about graduate school – why do it, what is it like, and what to do afterwards. I encourage you to give your own opinions in the comments section, and if you disagree with a point made by the panel, voice your opinion! This is something a lot of my readers can relate to, so I’m hoping to hear from all of you. Note that these are the opinions of those involved, and do not reflect our institutions or departments in any way. For a full list of the questions, read the first post.

In a good lab group, you'll be able to make nerdy science jokes and people will laugh; run; (shout out to my SAS users!)

First off, thank you all for your positive comments from the last post. I’m glad you’re enjoying this series. Feel free to offer your comments at the end – I’d love to hear what you think! Now, onto our second question.

You don’t quit jobs, you quit people.

A friend of mine once told me that and it’s probably the best job advice I’ve ever got. Day in, day out, the people you work with can make or break a position. Working with passionate, motivated supportive people can make working fun, even when things are going terribly. That doesn’t just go for research – I used to work retail at Christmas, and when the season got busier, it was the antics of my coworkers that kept things entertaining and interesting.

The same way that a good boss can completely change the dynamic of a workplace, a good supervisor can change your entire graduate school experience. Given the impact that having a supervisor whose style meshes with yours can have both in the short terms (in terms of timely thesis completion) and in the long term (ensuring papers get published, supporting future aspirations), it is no surprise that a lot of students spend time researching their potential supervisors. But what should you consider when picking a supervisor? What is important and what isn’t? What characteristics make a good supervisor?

Lets hear from the panel!

Morgan Craig-Broadwith (twitter, website):

When picking your advisor be sure to speak with other graduate students in his/her lab. Ask specific questions about the supervisor’s work style, what they expect from their graduate students (i.e. do they expect you in the lab/office every day, regular hours, etc.). I would encourage you to email students following the in-person meeting. Sometimes it is difficult for graduate students to shed light on the character of their supervisor in the confines of the office/lab setting. It is important to select a supervisor that has a similar work-life balance to you.

Tim Brown (twitter, websiteLinkedIn, Material Physics Group Website):

Adviser/PI

Try to meet/talk with your potential adviser (and group members); attempt to determine if there will be any potential personality clashes with the new big boss. You will be working with this person for at least a couple of years. I have met too many graduate students that hate their adviser with a passion. That hate can destroy any love you have for your research field. A good supervisor is one that causes inspiration and a desire to excel in your field. I was lucky to find a really good supervisor.

Committee

Make sure to pick committee members that are not hostile your research group, your advisor, or yourself. Rivalries happen. Your defence will be absolute hell if one of your committee members has a “bone to pick”. I was at a defence once that had a committee member that was out for blood. It was not pretty at all. Thankfully, the rest of the committee realized the one member was unfairly questioning the student. That situation is very rare. Every other defence I have attended was tough (as is expected), but fair.

Megan Carter (twitter, website):

I confess that I did not do a lot of research in this area ahead of time – I turned out to be lucky. I chose my supervisor because she had knowledge and expertise in the topics that I wanted to investigate (children, nutrition, obesity, social epidemiology, etc). She was my master’s supervisor. I chose to work with her again for my PhD because as I learned through my masters, she was involved in a large population-based cohort study of young children that collected a wide variety of social, biological, and behavioural data – an epidemiologist’s dream. I also got along with her and I liked my independence as a researcher, which she gave me.

It’s difficult to know your supervisor’s mentoring style before you work with them. Some students may require more direction so a supervisor who is more ‘hands-off’ may not work. I’d recommend talking to students or post-docs who have worked with the person you are considering to supervise you, if at all possible. I’d also recommend doing an undergrad thesis to gain experience and find out how you work independently.

Committee members should be selected for their expertise relevant to your project(s). In my case, I needed someone who was well-versed in longitudinal statistical methods, so that narrowed down who I could get to help me.

EpiGrad (twitter, website):

A few things come to mind off the top of my head. People will talk about personality, and wanting to make sure you find an advisor whose work is interesting enough that you’ll be okay going down that path for several years, and having it likely help define the work you end up doing. So I’m not going to talk about those things. Instead, I’m going to talk about two that proved  very important for me:

1. Work style. I’m a night owl. And I do things at the last minute. Someone who wants weekly status reports from me on a month’s long project is going to get frustrated, because my working style can be summarized as “Thinking … Thinking … Wait for it … Okay go time … done!” Similarly, if you prefer email and they really only do face to face meetings, that’s important to know and take into account. No matter how much you like a person and find their work interesting, if you get your best ideas at 3 AM and live an hour from campus, and they go home at 5:30 and answer emails with a single line, it’s probably not going to be the best working relationship.

2. Backups. Don’t just look at a program and find *an* advisor you like. Find several. There are all kinds of reasons for something to fall through – a grant doesn’t get funded, it turns out you really hate working on XYZ, an unexpected personality conflict, simple bad luck…you don’t want any of these things to strand you in a program where your One True Advisor is the only person you can work with.

The same is probably true for the committee. Make sure you can work well with all of these people, or at least work passably well, and if one of them leaves, your whole program won’t come collapsing down like a house of cards. Additionally, think about the balance of the committee – you want to make sure that you have at least a few genuine, on-your-side advocates, but someone who will provide a little pushback isn’t a bad thing. And make sure the committee can work with each other. Check with the departmental secretary to make sure Professor Smith doesn’t hate Professor Jones and will spend every one of your meetings bickering about some obscure point.

Some supervisors will encourage you to attend a lab meeting before you make a decision. If they do, definitely attend!

Penny Deck (twitter, website):

For my MSc, I applied to work with a former instructor of a class I’d really enjoyed. He’s a great lecturer and I was interested in the area of research. Unfortunately, I didn’t take enough time to figure out that his style of mentorship didn’t work well with my own needs. This was frustrating for both of us. I felt young, naïve, and was too intimidated to ask for help when I needed it. The project I was working on was also sufficiently different than other projects in the lab so getting help from other students wasn’t always an option. When returning to school to pursue my PhD, again, I approached my now supervisor directly. However, having worked with her before, I knew that I wouldn’t encounter the same challenges as before. I also took time to meet with others working with her and the lab environment is very supportive, with multiple sources to seek help. I’d highly recommend talking to current and former students to learn about the mentorship style of a potential supervisor – what works for some, might not work for others. If there are regular lab meetings or journal clubs, ask to attend – this can help you learn the dynamics of the group and decide if this is a place you’d like to work.

Travis Saunders (twitterwebsite):

When picking an adviser I would recommend that people look closely at “soft” aspects of the research environment, in addition to the typical things like research output. Different people have different expectations of how they like to communicate with their supervisor, how goals should be determined, work/life balance in the lab, etc. In my opinion it’s more important to find a supervisor/lab group that you mesh with rather than one that is simply a productive researcher.

As for the committee, I would look for people who bring skills and knowledge that complement those of your primary supervisor. But again, it’s probably better to have someone that you and your supervisor work well with, rather than picking someone simply because they have an impressive resume.

Atif (me!) (twitter):

For the supervisor, you first want someone who works with your work style. If you like someone who is hands off, look for that. If, on the other hand, you would rather have someone who is more available, that is something you should consider. Administratively, consider are whether they have graduated students before, and what their completion rate is – do they usually finish students on time? I would definitely recommend meeting several different potential supervisors, just in case one doesn’t have funding or space or the ability to take you on at that time.

Talk to current/previous students and find out what the supervisor is like and if that meshes with what you want, both in the short and long term. I’d also suggest finding out more about their lab and the dynamic there – do people interact a lot or does every do their own thing. Depending on your work style and personality, that may affect your decision. My lab group is amazing, and they’ve been a huge source of support for me over the years.

As for your committee, you want people who bring different experiences and skills If possible to try and get a wide range of ideas when you write your thesis. However, this can lead to problems down the road, especially if those ideas are in direct conflict with each other. But reconciling those opinions is part of the fun!

Some themes emerged from our seven panelists. Meeting your potential supervisor in person, talking to the lab group and interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you are all issues that we all thought were important. In addition, the research group can make a difference on the day to day running of the lab.

What do you think readers? Do you have any advice for graduate students as they search for a supervisor? Anything you agree or disagree with our panelists on?

Check back Monday for our next post: Dealing with criticism!

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