How to Choose an Advisor

How to Choose an Advisor

So, you think you want to do an MA or PhD in an academic field? One of the first things you’ll need to do before you even apply is to pinpoint an advisor. This may seem out of order to you, but there are two main reasons finding an advisor first is important:

  • It will point you towards the right graduate programs for you.
  • Your advisor will be a key advocate for your candidacy.

So, how does one go about finding an advisor? Read on for questions that will take you through the process.

1. How will graduate school help you achieve your academic and career goals?

Write out your reasons for and against attending graduate school, and keep this list close at hand as you research advisors. Not only will you add to your list of pros and cons as you apply, but you also want to foreground your reasons for entering a graduate program in your discussions with administrators, professors, and mentors.

2. What do you want to study?

Narrow your field of study past the department level. Instead of saying “biology,” you should be able to say “genetic engineering” or “marine mammal biology.” If you have no idea how to describe what you want to study, you may want to revisit question 1.

3. How do you want to approach your chosen field?

Are you interested in laboratory or historical research? Fieldwork and interviews? Long nights in a library with old texts? A comparative or interdisciplinary method? Thinking about how you want to study a topic will be helpful when you consider how different advisors may be able to inform your graduate work.

At this point, it will be helpful to set up a spreadsheet to manage the information you are about to collect. Make columns for names, contact information, where, what, publications, and notes. Each row should focus on a different potential advisor.

4. Who is studying your topic (or something close to it) already?

You may already know some of these people, given your interest in the field, but dig deeper. Use Google Scholar and JSTOR to search for publications on your topic, then search reviews of those publications. Google both the author’s name and the reviewer’s name to see what pops up. Search the programs of upcoming conferences in your field to see who is giving a talk in your subject area. Most importantly, talk to professors and students who are currently in the field about your interests. They’ll be able to point you to other scholars that may be helpful to you. Signet can be a great resource here, as our tutors and consultants come from virtually every possible field—just look at our tutors’ profiles!

5. Take your list of names from Question 4 and find out where these people teach and what their students’ areas of focus are.

6. To see what each professors’ approach is, research their publications (either through a database or their CV, which should be somewhere on their department’s website), and read a few of them carefully.

If they’ve published a book, read it, take good notes, and check its reviews through JSTOR. If they’ve only published articles, read two or three of them and note your questions and comments.

7. Looking over your spreadsheet, choose 5–7 advisors whose work touches on your area of interest and whose approaches you find interesting.

8. Contact these 5–7 potential advisors by email or phone.

Introduce yourself and say something complimentary about their work and how it touches on your interests. See if they are attending any upcoming conferences or if you can stop by their office to chat. Offer to take them out for coffee (your treat!) to pick their brain about the field. Professors love to talk to people who are genuinely interested in their work, but keep in mind that they are busy people. Don’t pester them, and try your best to arrange a convenient meeting place. Usually, there are one or two big conferences that most of your potential advisors will be attending. Plan to attend and set up meetings with everyone you can; make sure to save time to attend some of the talks, too!

9. Prepare for the discussion or meeting!

Show them that you are 1) easy to work with, 2) eager to learn, 3) organized, and 4) qualified. They are potentially taking you on as an advisee, and they don’t want to take on disorganized, underprepared students who need hand-holding. The more you can show yourself to be a good future colleague, the better. But, don’t brag! Be humble and show them that you are a good student, too.

10. Immediately after your meetings or discussions, write down your impressions of your potential advisors, and follow up with a sincere thank-you note via email.

11. Based on this research and your interactions with the advisors, choose two or three that you feel the most comfortable with and from whom you feel you could learn best.

Their programs are the ones you will be applying to as top choices.

12. Be sure to mention your positive interactions and impressions of these potential mentors in your application statement!

You’ll also want to drop these professors a note when you’ve submitted your application, just to let them know you followed through and are excited to work with them.

As you can see, graduate admissions are vastly different from undergraduate admissions.

Make sure to check out our post on how to apply to graduate school for more comprehensive information about what you need to do and how to do it!

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Sheila A.

Sheila Akbar is President & COO of Signet Education. She holds a bachelor's degree and master's degree from Harvard University and two doctoral degrees from Indiana University. She joined the team in the summer of 2010, bringing with her a wealth of experience teaching SAT, ACT, GRE, literature, and composition in both one-on-one and classroom settings.

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