How to choose a thesis advisor?
I've been thinking a lot lately about the process of choosing an advisor. It is interesting now, because I am about to start my TT position and I am on the other end of the fence for a change. I really, really need good dedicated students to help me get my lab going. I started thinking about what it was like when I was a graduate student looking for an advisor, and then from my perspective now, what a professor is looking for in students. It's kind of funny to think about.
When I was a prospective student, I met with many of my potential advisors (during prospectives weekend, when they fly us down to visit). To be honest, I didn't understand about 80% of what they said and was so downright intimidated I found it hard to ask questions. I think that we forget how wide the gulf between BS and PhD really is. At any rate, I muddled through the information provided and narrowed it down to a few individuals. I made my final selection based on the work/life balance at that university, the advisor, and the research area. I was pretty lucky, but now I realize there are a host of factors to consider.
1. Research area
This seems like it is the most important but now I'm not so sure. Selecting an advisor with a research area compatible with your interests is important, but if spending 5 years with this person is like Dante's 9th circle of hell, you might want to rethink. You can't go from studying semiconductors to particle physics, but you can go from studying proteins to studying cells. In retrospect, I should have cast a wider net than I did. The PhD is just a starting point and there are several paths that can lead to an interesting research area. One of my future colleagues at R1U works in mathematical modeling, but is now transitioning into some work in the bio field.
2. Your career goals
If you intend on getting an academic position pedigree is really important. Not that it is impossible to get a TT position with an unknown advisor, but it is much more difficult. Pretend that you are on the faculty search committee and you have two candidates. Both candidates have pretty similar CV's and research areas, but Candidate A has a glowing letter of recommendation from their advisor Dr. Well Known Nobel Prize Winner and Candidate B has a glowing letter of recommendation from Dr. I've Never Heard of You Before. The letter from Dr. Nobel Prize will hold much more weight than Dr. Never Heard of. Additionally, if you are interested in industry, some professors have connections with companies or have even worked at certain companies before. Those professors will be in a better position to help you when you graduate. Not to say you shouldn't take a position with a new faculty member (I'll be one next year!), but you should think hard about what your goals are and what that faculty member can provide.
3. Temperament of the Faculty Member/Lab
There are stories in every department of the one faculty member who forces students to slave through weekends and holidays working late into the night. If you want to build a great resume and graduate quickly, this may be great for you, but if you want balance you will have to seek it out. Ask other students their feelings about your potential advisor picks. Most students are not shy in telling you who is great and who is not. Additionally, the lab itself develops a personality. Make sure that you fit in with the other students. For example, I know one lab that has a reputation for being fairly ...uh.. masculine. Not the place that I would want to work. Also, there are labs that are really into sports. If you like to stay home and knit you probably wouldn't fit in with that group. You need to make sure that you are comfortable with the environment you will spend the next 5+ years in.
4. Big Fish vs. Little Fish
Should you go work for Dr. Nobel Prize so that you'll get that great recommendation and all those connections or should you work with Dr. Exciting who is just starting out? It really depends on what you want. An established professor will be less likely to have funding problems, have less difficulty publishing, and have more connections for you to take advantage of. On the other hand, many established professors are really, really busy, and you may only see them once a month (or less). Your primary mentors may be other grad students and postdocs. It can be really frustrating when you need help on an experiment or just a signature or okay on a paper and you have to wait many weeks to get an answer. New professors have less certain futures. There may be great problems with funding, but they will be enthusiastic and available. If you want hands on mentoring, this is a good option.
Finally, some thoughts from the Professor side. I realize that you may not understand what I am saying when I describe my research. I'm not always certain what level of explanation to use when describing things to you. I don't know your background. Feel free to ask questions. I would appreciate it, and if anything it would impress me not turn me off, because I would think that you are interested in my subject, which I think is the most fascinating thing on the planet (or I wouldn't spend so much of my time studying it).
From my prospective, I need a student who is serious, dedicated, and eager to work. Graduate school is a job. If you fail in undergrad, you suffer you get a bad grade, maybe your parents are upset. If you fail in graduate school, you could sink me and the rest of the lab. I also want students who love science as much as I do. I understand that many students go to grad school because they don't know what else to do with their life, but graduate school and what comes after are a cruel, cold world. It is publish or perish, even in industry it is produce or good-bye. If you aren't sure that this is what you love, that you have the passion, maybe you should rethink. But for those who do love it as I do, there is nothing more exciting than accidentally making Saran Wrap for the first time (one of my fondest lab accident memories).