How do I convince an advisor to take me on?
December 11, 2007 11:00 PM   Subscribe

How do I convince a research advisor to take me on as a grad student?

There's a group I'm seriously interested in joining - really, really interested in joining - for my doctoral research (physical sciences). I would commit to it right now, given the opportunity. I've spent hours talking to the advisor's grad students, have given him my CV, and have begun attending the weekly group meetings. However, there are a lot of other grad students doing the same thing; it's a popular group, and he's only accepting one new student this year.

I realize that the right tact to take always somewhat depends on the particular group and the advisor, but I was hoping you all might have some more general advice about how to go about standing out from a pool of applicants. I'm considering cornering this advisor later this week and once again explaining why I'm interested in his group and what I could bring to it, since I've been told he values persistence, but do any of you have further advice or input? Would giving him letters of recommendation be useful, or just seem desperate? What more can I do at this point? What worked for you?

Thanks, all.
posted by you're a kitty! to Education (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Would giving him letters of recommendation be useful, or just seem desperate?

You did put a list of references on your CV, right? If so, then giving him unasked-for letters does seem a bit desperate. Better to ask your referees to send him an informal

What would seriously be impressive would be a detailed written research proposal for something you could do in his group. Of course it'd be a lot of work, but that's also why it would be so impressive.
posted by grouse at 12:12 AM on December 12, 2007

Best answer: Seconding grouse's suggestion: write a detailed written research proposal that is specific to your future work with him and his growth. Bonus points: show how it accrues points to his lab and him personally and will result in multiple papers on which he is the co-author.

#2, but just as vital: bring the money in with you. I hope you've already applied for the NSF, which you don't need to be in grad school to apply for. You won't find out about the NSF until after you hear back about the lab, but it doesn't hurt to flash your application about a bit and tell them how you're so eager that you're already out there going after money. This really matters.
posted by arnicae at 12:38 AM on December 12, 2007

Just to clarify: even if you don't have money (grants, scholarships, anything) you're bringing with you, you want to show your prospective adviser that you are planning to bring money with you, that he won't have to find money for you. Even if he has plenty of funding, every scientist I've ever met hoards funding.
posted by arnicae at 12:48 AM on December 12, 2007

You've already been given a few great suggestions. I knew an advisor in grad school who raved that one of her students wrote a proposal even before he entered the lab.

Can you do rotations during your first year? Do a rotation through several labs, including the lab that you are interested in. Hopefully, if you can't get a position this year, then you should be ready for the following year, with experience directly related to the lab.

I'm suggesting the above only if you do not get accepted into the lab of choice, but I think it would be a great back up plan.

Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 4:53 AM on December 12, 2007

Sorry, up above I meant "Better to ask your referees to send him an informal e-mail, if any of them already know the lab head."
posted by grouse at 5:20 AM on December 12, 2007

Best answer: What you need is for people to be telling this guy, "Hey, I heard you're a kitty! has been hanging out at your lab -- that's terrific, she's first-rate." Some of the people who might tell him this are his grad students, so impressing his current students is one of your jobs.

The people most likely to help are his trusted colleagues. So if there are people who know and respect you (e.g. your current recommenders) and who know this prof. (or are sufficiently senior and bigtime that HE knows THEM) it would be totally OK for you to say to them "Hey, Prof. BIGSHOT, just wanted to catch up -- I'm really enjoying grad school and in particular the such-and-such lab -- if you happen to have any contact with this guy and you agree I'd be a good match feel free to mention my name." I've certainly done this for my former students.

You don't really explain whether him taking you on is an informal thing, the way it would be in my field (math), or whether you are actually going to fill out a formal application to his lab. If it's the latter, he's going to see your recommendation letters and CV anyway, right? So it would be weird to hand them over in advance.

That said, don't overstrategize this. The number 1 thing you can do is what you're already doing -- be present, be visible, be audible, be smart.
posted by escabeche at 8:06 AM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think the grants is a great idea, I doubt NSF will work for you --too hard without a faculty as principal investigator. I suggest instead you look around in your university/research institute/city etc for scholarships or fellowships or some such and apply. It blows my mind that people do not use this resource. For example: at Michigan State U.
Go to the Library and ask at the desk for information. There is TONS of small grants which you can easily get and might not even need a research proposal for, only a statement of research goals. These are grants offered to students by individuals or foundations outside academia, sometimes aim at a certain demographic or research field and cover a small period like a year or so.
Also, your professional organization (e.g. American Physical Society) probably has a site with grants for students.

Finally, how much time do you have? Can you write a paper? A review article? A note of correspondence? A blab? Try to send it to as good a journal as possible or even a periodical (e.g. Physics Today) or an online publication.

If you are coming from an MSc background, I strongly suggest the paper and perhaps attending a conference and presenting something?

Good luck!
posted by carmina at 8:06 AM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

I doubt NSF will work for you --too hard without a faculty as principal investigator.

You can write an NSF predoctoral fellowship application with a specific PI in mind, without their knowledge, and you aren't committed to their lab. But I believe the next application cycle is in autumn 2008.
posted by grouse at 8:28 AM on December 12, 2007

Best answer: not everyone is interesting, even though they might be great at doing research. I think my advisor liked me because he knew I had similar hobbies and that we got along well, so be yourself and maybe in an informal moment talk some up about yourself outside the context of work (you do have other interests besides school, don't you?)? but this really requires some familiarity with you as a student first I suppose, if he gives you an opening with a non-academic question though, go for it.

Definitely having other people in the lab like you and want you around is a good thing too.

Finally, it never hurts for him to see you when he's not necessarily looking for you. I took a class from my advisor, and then I sat in on a series of talks by a visiting professor. I slept through most of it and I'll be damned if I learned anything, but my advisor saw me there and that's when we got to talking. so go to colloquia
posted by Large Marge at 10:07 AM on December 12, 2007

I started grad school recently, and three of my "class" of 25 brought an NSF with them. This is a prestigious way to start grad school and it is VERY possible to get a NSF w/o an adviser. Moreover, the best way to do this may be to see if you can get him to collaborate with him- you've missed the deadline for this year, but you might be able to do the GSRF with him.

To be clear, by "with him" I mean, you write and edit the heck out of an application that shows off how cool you are and how you'd collaborate with his lab (acting as if you're his next grad student in the application) then submit it to him prior to submitting it. Don't ask him for too much engagement unless he does it spontaneously. They're crunched for time and even "reading it over" may be too much.
posted by arnicae at 11:41 AM on December 12, 2007

Re: predoctoral fellowships. If your research is relevant, you're not too late for the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship. You've got to hustle, though - the deadline is Jan 7th.
posted by ilyanassa at 12:03 PM on December 12, 2007

Response by poster: You guys are great, thanks for all the advice! I'll let you know how it goes.
posted by you're a kitty! at 2:33 PM on December 12, 2007

Response by poster: I got it! Thanks everyone!
posted by you're a kitty! at 1:14 PM on April 22, 2008

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