How do I figure out which graduate advisor to pick?
April 16, 2012 8:54 AM   Subscribe

I'm not sure what to do about the "politics of graduate school". I am a beginning student in Fall 2012, and I have some serious issues. How do I decide my advisor? Am I just letting the stress get to me?

So, I got accepted into my dream school. There's a lot of amazing professors there, and I'm thrilled to be attending in the fall. However, I'm not 100% on what I want to do my thesis on or who I want to be working with. When I talked to students, it seemed like we had an initial professor for the first bit and then we chose our real advisor. The students made it seem like our choices were wide open and that we could really work with anybody who fit with us.

I'm not really sure if that is the case. I talked with some awesome professors when I was there, but maybe I didn't ask enough questions. I was really, really nervous. I just got an email from a professor that I didn't really "click" with asking if I wanted to work with him. We discussed his work and it was pretty obvious (to me) that the work wasn't what I wanted to do. I said as much in our personal meeting. What does his request even mean? I don't know if I can decline tactfully or at all. I don't know what the unsaid connotations are. I don't know how I'll be able to advocate for myself and get what I need out of it. Graduate students did say that professors often try and poach 'good' students away from each other, so maybe that's what is happening? I feel like I need more time to decide. He emailed me RIGHT at the April 15th deadline, too. It's making me sick.

Can somebody please give me a little more insight into graduate school politics? This university is tier 1 and highly prestigious; I come from a small non-research college...I don't really have anybody I can talk to about this. I feel like I'm at a huge disadvantage.

I don't know how to find the professor that I truly want to work with. I met a lot of people that I liked. Should I be emailing them? How can I decline this professor? Omg. Please, help. I don't want to ruin everything.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is this a doctoral program or an MA? I'm assuming the former. If that's the case, the second crucial piece of information concerns the discipline you're entering. Is it a discipline in which your research would take place in a lab under the direction of your advisor? Or is it a discipline in which you'd be doing independent research of your own design in the U.S. or abroad?

As a doctoral candidate, I think your answer to that question is crucial to the reply I'd give. Could you let one of the mods know?
posted by artemisia at 9:01 AM on April 16, 2012

As someone who was also pretty lost at the start of grad school, I highly, highly recommend reading Getting What You Came For by Robert Peters. The book is an excellent road map for getting through the initial stages of grad work and fills you in on the things most grad programs seem to assume you'll learn through osmosis.
posted by backupjesus at 9:03 AM on April 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

First of all, talk to your undergraduate advisor. This person went to graduate school. They may not be advising graduate students now, but their grad school buddies are, and they likely hear about it. They have been through this experience, and they know you, and can help at least calm you down.

Secondly, all you should need to say to the prof who approached you is "Thank you so much for getting in touch with me; I'm really looking forward to starting my work at Fancy U and getting to know you and your work much better."

To a certain extent, you need to be able to ignore the politics. This crap about professors poaching students away from each other is crap you don't need to pay attention to. What you need to focus on is what you want to study, what you want your focus to be, and who (faculty-wise) is going to help you achieve that best and fastest and advocate for you hardest. Stay out of the shit. It is not about you unless you make it about you. To stay out of the shit, you need to be exceptionally professional and responsible in all of your interactions with all faculty members. You need to have a strong idea about what you want to work on, or at the very least, about when you'll have that decision made. Communicate that clearly to your faculty advisor and potential committee members.

Artemisia raises an excellent point; this is very discipline dependent.
posted by amelioration at 9:07 AM on April 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

There will be a graduate secretary (or similar title) who handles applications and incoming students. You have probably been in touch with this person already to sort out your application and acceptance. They will be administrative staff rather than faculty, and should thus be more or less politically neutral, and should be able to help you navigate this process. It sounds like it would be beneficial to get in touch with them to clarify the process and expectations for new grads, and what would be the administrative implications to you of accepting or declining this offer.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:08 AM on April 16, 2012

I'm going to guess that the April 15th deadline is for attending the school, not choosing a professor.

In either case, write him back thanking him for the offer, state that you're honored, but you're going to work with Professor X (someone else you want to work with and click with). Let him know you'll keep him in mind. Then thank him again. This way you're not rejecting him so much as overwhelmed with so many great offers.

The other approach, if the deadline is not about choosing a professor. Write him back now, thanking him for the offer. Let him know you're talking to a few other people too and will get back to him. Then down the line send him pretty much the same message as before.

Don't kill yourself with worry. Professors get rejected for all kinds of things all the time, and your rejection is not going to end his world or yours. Just be polite and tactful.
posted by Mercaptan at 9:09 AM on April 16, 2012

The answer to these questions varies dramatically depending on your field and your specific graduate program. The best advice is to get in touch with current students in your program. The department should be able to connect you with some if you don't have any contact info.
posted by kickingtheground at 9:11 AM on April 16, 2012

From the OP:
I am doing a doctorate and my field is computer science related. I will not need to be working so closely with my professor; it isn't like chemistry or biology. We do not need to be in the same place at the same time.
posted by jessamyn at 9:14 AM on April 16, 2012

This depends a lot on the funding model in your graduate program -- mine was centrally funded by the department, so we were very free in who we worked with, because our advisor did not have to find money to pay us with. Departments where you are funded from your advisor's funds are harder, because the advisors are more limited, and varied, in how many students they can accept into their lab. The professors really, truly, want you to succeed. So do the other students. Just start emailing and asking for help. It's totally OK to say to this professor that you're not sure yet what you want to do, and start emailing the other professors you were interested in about their research.
posted by brainmouse at 9:18 AM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your question and follow up are still too vague for me. Find and consult with your departmental or divisional graduate advisor/administrator. They would be better able to advise you.
posted by sm1tten at 9:30 AM on April 16, 2012

What does his request even mean?

His request means that he is impressed by you and wants to work with you. Don't be sick about it! It's a good sign.

You have good advice up-thread: reply politely without committing, and do email the professors you are more interested in working with.

Meanwhile, consider taking a class with this person if you can, and continue talking to them about the projects you could do. Maybe you'll "click" when you know them better. You shouldn't choose—or reject—a research mentor based just on a brief meeting during your campus visit!
posted by BrashTech at 9:37 AM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

When do people pick their advisors? Before they start or during 1st year?
posted by k8t at 9:48 AM on April 16, 2012

In my experience (in chemistry grad school), professors are trying to recruit the best students; undergraduates don't often tend to have firm ideas about their research interests. I doubt they will mind about getting rejected as long as you are polite. Getting rejected is a big part of being a professor.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 10:02 AM on April 16, 2012

It's good advice to learn about things like the funding model, and to get to know the department secretary. However, I would basically ignore whatever you think you know about department politics, except to the extent that they give you info on these two criteria:
1) Does their work excite me?
2) Do I trust them?
Your advisor will be your primary advocate at all stages of grad school, and well beyond. I believe that many grad-school horror-stories could have been avoided if the student had listened to their gut reaction after their first few meetings with their future advisor. Prestige, rank, and a precise match between what they do, and what you think you want to do, are all secondary to trust.
Of course it's ok to turn this person down -- but I don't think you need to say anything definitive to them until you meet with all your options.
Oh, and the time to worry about departmental politics is when you form your thesis committee! But that's a little ways away for you, and is something you can figure out by hanging out with senior students and listening to gossip.
posted by inkfish at 10:13 AM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

What does his request even mean?

One thing it probably means is that he is aware that most incoming grad students don't really know what they want to do, even if they think they do. So he is impressed with you and doesn't necessarily expect what you thought you wanted to do to last for very long -- and is planting a seed for that point in time.
posted by advil at 10:53 AM on April 16, 2012

Just a side note: Several of my friends have done CS PhDs. From their experience, I would say it's more important than you think to be in the same place as your advisor most of the time. One friend's advisor fucked off to Europe for several months and it was a real challenge trying to communicate across time zones -- not to mention the times the advisor just wasn't answering emails for weeks at a time. When the prof is on campus, you can stop by their office to chat about things, rather than: sending an email, waiting for morning in their time zone, hoping they read the email and respond first thing, and not getting said response until morning your time (or later). Also, don't underestimate the value of face time. Obviously, you don't need to be working in the same lab like you do in some of the hard sciences, but avoid profs who you know are doing sabbaticals or will otherwise be away from campus for long periods when you might need them.

Also, nthing the recommendation for Getting What You Came For. It's the manual nobody will give you on how to manage the process of grad school.
posted by katemonster at 11:44 AM on April 16, 2012

Try to get in touch with current grad students in that program and see what light they can shed on this situation and this guy. Offer to talk by phone if they'd prefer not to email you, for greater candidness.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:00 PM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just got an email from a professor that I didn't really "click" with asking if I wanted to work with him. We discussed his work and it was pretty obvious (to me) that the work wasn't what I wanted to do. I said as much in our personal meeting. What does his request even mean? I don't know if I can decline tactfully or at all. I don't know what the unsaid connotations are. I don't know how I'll be able to advocate for myself and get what I need out of it.

First, try to relax a little. It's not dating, you're not dumping her/him, it's not personal. You're making a professional, career-guiding decision. However, that doesn't mean you can't change your mind, and many people often change their sub-area of study once they start graduate school. The professor is also a professional, and he won't have some kind of grudge against you. Graduate school is not Game of Thrones. At one time your professor was in your shoes. They know that it's an important decision and that you need to choose the topic that is the best fit for you, since you'll be dedicating the next 40+ years of your life to it.

You should reply to his email and thank him for his interest, but you're not sure the research direction you want to go into fits with the type of research he does. Briefly explain the type of research you want to do. Maybe it does fit and you don't know it. Or maybe he forgot you were interested in X, Y, Z; he could suggest someone who would be a better fit.

Also, seconding reading Getting What You Came for. You should read it this summer on the beach.
posted by cupcake1337 at 3:55 PM on April 16, 2012

I am about to finish a CS PhD program at an R1 institution, so it's been a little while since I started grad school but I can definitely relate to your questions.

Firstly, congratulations! This is definitely awesome and while stress inducing, a great accomplishment and I'm excited for you. Don't worry about your small non-research college or the prestige of the place, they accepted you and you're showing up in the fall. Politics are definitely a thing - but in my experience, they're much more the exception than the rule.

Secondly, just about all of the other advice upthread is great. You should definitely relax :).

This professor would like you to work on a project with them - you can certainly say no. Some schools admit students with explicit guarantees of long-term funding from specific advisors (and most places have a rough idea of what area/faculty a student will work with), but that does not confine you - people change advisors all the time, and if you were admitted specifically to work with this person, you would have already been informed as such.

Graduate students did say that professors often try and poach 'good' students away from each other, so maybe that's what is happening?

Are you speaking specifically of other students in this department, or other grad students in general? Unless you hear about repeated examples in your department, I would not worry about this. And besides, at this point you aren't anyone's student, so you can't be poached!

As for finding someone you DO want to work with - this is a multi-step process. Familiarize yourself with the recent work of faculty you might want to work with, and get a feeling for their current projects. Most projects span at least a couple papers, so the overarching projects behind these publications are probably ongoing. After you know what you are talking about, email or knock on an open office door, and let the prof know you're interested in working with them, and ask if they have any projects that you could help out on. Your first project, almost guaranteed, will NOT be your thesis project. So don't worry about that either. Get an idea for how they advise, how they get things done, and if you produce for them they will almost certainly want you to be their student.

Some faculty won't have specific projects, or wont' want to put time into a student without vetting them a bit first. Do not let this freak you out, it happens. Many faculty teach seminars/topics courses that are directly related to their research (some even have in-class projects that occasionally get spun into publications), and doing well in one of those is another way to introduce yourself to a potential advisor.

Feel free to memail me if you have more questions.
posted by kaytwo at 5:05 PM on April 17, 2012

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