Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

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).

10 Comments:

At 2:48 PM , Blogger Jane said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing.

The only thing I would add re: working with new (untenured) faculty is to develop a contingency plan i.e. what will you do if your advisor doesn't get tenure? This could mean developing relationships (collaborative or otherwise) with professors outside your lab, or having frank discussions with your advisor, or being really productive so that s/he will get tenure :), or whatever. Definitely take advantage of the experience if it's best for you, but go in with your eyes wide open.

 
At 5:24 PM , Blogger Nelumbo said...

Good post!

I also would never recommend choosing a grad school that only has one person that you're interested in working for. Rotations are the only way you can figure out some of these things, especially the culture of the lab group. I thought I really wanted to work for Big-shot professor A, but then realized my goals, personality, and needs were better matched by professor B.

 
At 7:37 AM , Blogger SciMom said...

I want to add my two cents. I have often seen that the "not so well known" professors can be the better mentors. Making sure the money to do the research is there for the period of your graduate degree i s important but a really good advisor will be accessible and invested in your future. Sometimes the cut throat nature of the big labs is not for everyone. Yes a "big name" on your cv can help but only if the work productivity is high. A lot is expected from those in the big labs.

 
At 7:39 AM , Blogger SciMom said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 8:15 AM , Anonymous turducken said...

What you describe seems like a system set up for failure - expecting students fresh out of undergrad to be able to choose an advisor, even with the best advice in the world (and your advice is good). Why does your institution require students to choose their diss advisor right out of the gate? We don't make that decision here until we're actually starting the dissertation and know our faculty very well.

 
At 7:52 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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)."

There is a danger with this though that you will select students who require the least amount of teaching (i.e. students who are closer already to reaching their potential). Typically these are students who come from more privileged backgrounds and are the ones who at least project confidence (typically white males). It is a system that keeps itself going.

Also, just a reminder working long hours doesn't mean you produce more publishable data. My lab is a very productive but most people do not work more than 60 hours a week. Which is a fair bit but nowhere near what some advisors push their students to do (some 70 hours min). It is crazy.

The reality is it is a job but what it is supposed to be is school. A PhD should be an academic degree not a professional one. Most of your students will not become faculty at research universities like you. If you push that you are pushing a pyramid scheme.

I agree with previous comments. Pick a department that has a number of a faculty members whose research you find interesting. Go to a place that does rotations. You need to find the right fit for you to learn and develop as a scientist. You can get the famous person on your thesis committee, thereby getting many of the benefits without being in their lab. And if the fit isn't right, switch labs as soon as you can. I have known a number of students who have gone for the bigger name & have regretted it because they are slavedrivers, making life miserable. A good number of them leave science because they felt it was too late to switch labs.

 
At 3:16 AM , Anonymous mj said...

good post
i just found my thesis adviser, and actually it was very difficult to find the adviser who can help me and can lead my thesis work.
i really like this sentence "grad school is work"

 
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At 10:46 PM , Anonymous Dorothy C. Kite said...

Choosing a thesis advisor is really a tough job. As we know, they will be the one who would help us along the path of thesis writing so it would really be good if you can find one that would really help you out. If not, you might find one that would make your writing harder, than what they really supposed to do.

 

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