For graduate students: Seven steps to finding the right advisor

Written by Laura Zimmerman, PhD

Undergraduate students who want to pursue psychology research careers often believe that where they choose to go to graduate school is the most important decision they’ll make about their education. While that is one key factor, choosing the right advisor can be even more crucial. Advisors serve as supervisors and mentors who ensure students meet graduate school requirements, oversee research and writing, help obtain funding, provide feedback on papers and talks, and give career advice.

“Your mentor will be a huge factor in the next four to six years of your life,” says Ana Hernandez Kent, a doctoral candidate in experimental psychology at Saint Louis University. “[That’s why it’s important to] really focus on the professors you want to work with, rather than the school or program.”

How can students do that? Here are seven suggestions from psychology professors and fellow students.

  1. Identify potential advisors 

Start your search by matching your interests to laboratories doing similar work. “I thought a lot about my research interests,” says Jenna Cummings, a doctoral candidate in health psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. “I wanted to be where I would enjoy researching a topic for the next five years.”

Enlist the help of your undergraduate advisor. “Get to know at least one professor outside of classes by working in a lab or doing a thesis,” says Cummings. “When you have a closer relationship with your undergraduate advisor, they are interested in your success and motivated to help.”

As an undergrad, Justin Strickland, a doctoral candidate in behavioral neuroscience and psychopharmacology at the University of Kentucky, asked his advisor for research experience. “My advisor lined me up with a former student who is now my grad school advisor. I spent the summer of my junior year in my current advisor’s lab,” he says.

Research and laboratory experience as an undergraduate will also help you get into a lab in graduate school, says Tammy Allen, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida. “Having worked on an honors thesis demonstrates you have some familiarity with the research process.”

If you don’t have the opportunity to work in a lab before graduation, you might consider taking a gap year before entering graduate school to gain research experience by working in a lab and exploring your research interests. You can also apply for a postbaccalaureate research internship, which helps students gain research experience. Many universities offer postbaccalaureate opportunities, as do many medical centers and agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

  1. Consider key qualities 

When evaluating possible advisors, consider where they are in their careers. “Assistant professors might have more projects and diverse interests, but might not have much funding,” says Cummings. More established professors might have more focused research interests, and more funding, she says.

In the end, it comes down to qualities that best match your needs. For example, Renee Cloutier, a doctoral candidate in experimental psychology at the University of North Texas, was the first graduate student to join her advisor’s new lab. “I liked the opportunity to build up a lab from scratch because, ultimately, I want to go into academia, and this let me see how to do it.”

Factors such as funding, publishing opportunities and support for conferences are also important to consider. You need to think about how much funding your advisor has and whether he or she will be able to support your research activities, says Strickland. “It shouldn’t be your sole determinant, but you have to think about it.”

To determine if a lab offers publishing opportunities, “look at faculty CVs to figure out if students are included on publications or if they are first authors,” says Cloutier. “This indicates the advisor is mentoring and helping students along with publications.”

  1. Reach out 

Once you’ve identified possible advisors, find out if they are accepting students. Email the faculty you want to work with and tell them what you are interested in and why you want to work with them, Cloutier says.

Also ask them about the research they are currently conducting, Cummings suggests. “This is a good way to learn about their ongoing projects because their publications may not reflect their current activities and interests.”

But, be mindful of the time it takes for them to respond. “Questions are fine, but remember that faculty receive many inquires so it is best to ask questions that are not going to take the potential advisor a long time to answer,” says Allen.

Also, skip sending questions you can answer on your own. For example, don’t ask advisors about admission requirements or questions you can find the answers to on department websites.

When it’s time to apply to graduate schools, use your personal statement to catch the attention of potential advisors. Personal statements can be very telling, says Linda Spear, PhD, a professor of psychology at Binghamton University in New York, who tries to answer these three questions when she reviews applicants: “Do they seem interested in the kind of work we do? Do they write well? Do they have solid reasons for wanting to go to graduate school?”

In addition, letters of recommendation provide important insights. “I look for indication of responsibility, reliability, creativity, common sense, high ethical standards, dedication and enthusiasm,” she adds.

  1. Meet the advisor 

After graduate schools accept your application, you may get the opportunity to tour their campuses and meet potential advisors. If travel isn’t possible, advisors are increasingly doing web-based interviews. These meetings will give you a sense of compatibility, which may matter more than similar research interests. “An advisor is a research collaborator, as well as a mentor, so it’s important to get along,” says Strickland.

Lab work conditions and requirements are also important to consider. “Some advisors need you to be in the lab a lot, while others don’t care where you do your work as long as you get it done,” says Hernandez Kent. “My lab is very communal, with a round table where we bounce ideas off each other. Other labs are less collaborative, with individual offices or no shared space.”

You can gather a sense of the lab atmosphere by talking to other students. “Grad students will know the most about what it means to work with that advisor,” says Strickland. “Students are the most honest about their advisor’s personality, their expectations for students, and how they run the lab.”

  1. Find a good fit 

Remember advisors are also looking to see if you can work well together. “Most of what one learns in graduate school occurs outside the classroom and in the lab, and a lot of that training involves one-on-ones with others, including other graduate students and staff, as well as faculty,” says Spear.

After you meet with faculty and students, they will discuss your social interactions. “Faculty will ask their students about the type of questions you asked and if you seemed collaborative,” says Allen. “I want to assess your intellectual curiosity and determine if you will be a good colleague to other students.”

To be able to ask good questions, do your homework in advance, says Allen. “Become familiar with the research conducted by the department faculty, not just the advisor you are interested in working with, and have questions ready.”

However, beware of coming across as a sycophant. “There are cases where students bend too far and say whatever they believe faculty members want to hear, but a lot of times faculty can see right through that,” says Allen.

Also, be sure to talk up your nonacademic activities and interests, which can spark faculty interest more than GPA and GRE scores. “Evidence from applicants’ records that they can efficiently balance various interests and competing demands when scheduling their time is a major plus,” says Spear.

  1. Work hard 

Once you’ve made your final graduate school choice and have been accepted into a lab, it’s time to make a great initial impression. For starters, don’t wait until the beginning of the fall semester to get involved. Instead, do some literature review work or volunteer to help conduct research over the summer, advises Allen. “It demonstrates you are eager to get started.”

When you get to the lab, remember that most of your co-workers have been working together for years. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” says Cloutier. “You are coming into a lab with older students who were once new, too, so usually they are more than happy to share advice.”

Also, be sure to establish your dependability, says Allen. “Right away work on existing projects, make deadlines and generate ideas for research projects you want to carry out.”

Another key to success is to talk to your advisor about your goals and expectations, says Cummings.

“Be clear about what your needs are as a student and voice them to your advisor so he or she can meet your needs better.”

  1. Watch for a mismatch 

Sometimes students realize they are not a good fit with their advisor or lab.

If you are having trouble with your advisor, first try to work it out with him or her. If it becomes apparent that switching labs is the best solution, talk with someone else in the department to help with the transition. For example, meet with the department chair, the dean of graduate studies, or another faculty member whom you trust for guidance on how to change labs and to learn about any formal departmental procedures. Go to these meetings prepared to suggest possible solutions, rather than just complaining. For example, suggest other labs you could join.

“Students might have anxiety about switching labs, but the people I’ve known who’ve done it have had very positive experiences,” says Cummings. “I think universities are generally supportive of those kinds of transitions.”

The last thing you should do is stay in a situation that is not working for you, says Cloutier. “The advisor really matters a lot to your academic future and your career. If you don’t get along, you can’t move forward with your master’s thesis and dissertation. They are the gatekeepers to your success.”


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