advice on choosing an advisor

Aimee Yermish ayermish at leland.Stanford.EDU
Fri Feb 5 16:18:57 EST 1993

I offered to post this about a month ago, then realized that much of
the advice was very specific to my university and program, then
realized that I wanted to do a better job fixing it up before
inflicting it upon the net at large.  So here it is, finally.  I hope
it helps people.


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                         Advice on Choosing an Advisor

                                 Aimee Yermish
                          ayermish at
                           Program in Cancer Biology
                              Stanford University

copyright (c) Aimee Yermish 1991, 1993.  Permission granted (nay, encouraged!)
to reproduce or excerpt in unedited form, as long as this notice is retained.
All other rights reserved.  Please send comments to the author.

Choosing a thesis advisor is one of the most important decisions a graduate
student makes.  Not only are you deciding what your field of investigation will
be, possibly affecting the rest of your career, but you are also deciding on a
home and a surrogate family with whom you will live for the next several
years.  It's quite possible to choose wrong, and the consequences can be very
painful.  Sadly, few graduate programs give any useful guidance in making this
crucial decision.  But you don't have to reinvent the wheel -- you can learn
from other people's experiences, good and bad.

Keep an open mind.  You may be interested in one particular field, perhaps
something related to work you did as an undergraduate.  But rest assured that
there are hundreds of other fields that would be just as interesting, if you
took a little time to learn about them.  If you start with too small a range,
your choices of perfect lab will be sharply limited.  Similarly, try to put
aside any preconceptions you may have about which particular PI you'd like to
work for, what sort of management style you think you'd do best in, what sort
of lab environment would be most happy and productive for you, and so forth.
It's better to start very wide and narrow things down than to start narrow and
get stuck.

Keep an eye on your own feelings.  Don't worry about what your relatives,
friends, and fellow scientists will think of your choices -- it's not their
Ph.D.  Don't think about what you should like, think about what you do like.
Your interests and goals may well change as you gather more information.  You
probably know how it feels to be enthusiastic about something.  Listen for that
feeling, whether it's about the work you'd be doing or the people you'd be
doing it with.  Three to seven years, or more, is an awfully long time to be in
a situation you don't love.  That's plenty of time to really start hating
something, if you're not careful.

Take your time.  There's no rush, if you plan ahead.  If your program sets up
rotations for you, you'll want to do your investigation far enough in advance
that you can put in an intelligent set of requests.  If you're a foreign
student, you may have to start working in a lab immediately in order to get
funding, so again you'll need to start gathering information early.  You can do
the library work (by far the most time-consuming part, taking anywhere from two
weeks to a year) on any campus, and you can probably do the on-campus
interviews before the term starts by showing up a few weeks early.

Enjoy the process itself.  It's not often that you get to read in detail in so
many different fields, talk to so many interesting people, get so much practice
interviewing, and experiment with so many possible futures.  Your enthusiasm
for the process will show through, and you'll have much more fun talking to

Be prepared.  Learn to talk honestly, intelligently, and coherently about your
strengths and weaknesses, your previous research experience, your scientific
interests, your short- and long-term goals, what you're looking for in a lab,
and anything else that's important to you.

Use all the resources available to you.  Some of them may take a little effort
to track down, but it's usually time well spent.  Your resources include:

     * Faculty research directories.  Most universities have them, although
       printing costs mean that they are often jealously guarded.  The best
       ones have one-page writeups from each PI, with a few references at the
       bottom of the page.  Other guides may have only a few sentences.  Some
       universities have the information available in online databases.  If
       nothing else, Peterson's graduate program guides (probably available in
       your campus library) list the faculty associated with each program or
       department.  In any case, you can usually get enough information here to
       let you know if you could even remotely be interested in a particular

     * Medline or other literature search facilities.  If you can't get an
       account easily, find someone who has one (try your undergraduate
       advisor!) and ask very nicely.  Most people are cheerful to help, as
       long as it doesn't cost them too much.  Many sites have abstracts
       available, so you can easily print out enough reading material to let
       you know if you're interested in a particular topic and which papers you
       want to photocopy.

     * Libraries.  Not every library will have all the journals you're
       interested in, and you may need to trek around a little to find one with
       the right focus.  Departments often have their own little libraries as
       well.  The easiest and most efficient thing to do is find one library
       that has the most desirable subset of the journals you need, organize
       all the citations you plan to photocopy the same way they are organized
       on the library shelves (in most libraries, this is alphabetically by
       journal title, chronologically within journal).  Using a library cart,
       start at the beginning of your list and just pull the volumes off the
       shelves, keeping them in order so you can just go down the list when you
       get to the photocopier.  Be prepared to spend a lot of money on
       photocopying (again, friendly faculty may help) -- think of it as an
       investment in your future.  If you can't afford it, then find a library
       with long hours and a comfortable couch.

     * Program coordinators and department secretaries.  Many of the PIs who
       are looking for students will talk to their support staff, and these
       hardworking people often know plenty about which students are happy in
       their labs and which aren't.

     * Faculty themselves, both at your current and future institutions.
       Someone whose lab is full may well know of other labs that would fit
       your interests.  Almost anyone you talk to will be curious about whom
       else you're talking to, and while most will not give you information
       that could be classified as "dirt," they will often volunteer their
       opinions about the research and personal qualities of the PIs in other
       labs.  Many of the PIs who have been around a while can also give you
       excellent advice on being a successful graduate student.

     * Other students.  Besides being able to help you through the process,
       most students are far more willing to give you the grapevine information
       about who's a good advisor, where their friends are happy or unhappy,
       etc.  Students and postdocs you've just met will often be very candid
       with you, even about their own PI.

Now, the process itself.  This is obviously not the only method, nor could it
possibly be the perfect method for deciding on a lab, but it seems to work.
Yes, it's time-consuming; make sure to leave yourself plenty of time.  One big
advantage of this method is that you will become acquainted with many fields of
study, broadening your knowledge base, which can only help you in the long
run.  Another advantage is that you will come into your interviews
well-prepared, which can only improve your chances of establishing a productive
relationship with the PI.

Collect the names and interests (at least to the few sentence level) of all
faculty you could possibly work for.  You should make as few cuts as possible
at t

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