Issues to consider when choosing an advisor

Updated 4/1/17

These can be asked of the advisor, the students in the lab, or found out online.

The mission of the Graduate Student Association is to support the quality of life of all Masters and PhD students at the School of Medicine. Results of our annual survey show that the mentoring relationship is one of the most important factors impacting student happiness and success. We have developed the following questions to help you make an informed decision when choosing a PI.

Projects:

  1. What are the current projects that I might be working on?
  2. How much flexibility will I have in designing the direction of my project?
  3. What is the strategy for determining if a project will sink or swim?
  4. How many papers did the 10 most recent students publish from this lab? What journals
    were they published in?

Mentoring style:

  1. When it becomes time to write the paper, how will the work be divided up?
  2. How responsive is the advisor? How long does it take him/her to return written material
    with comments?
  3. How does the advisor handle authorship disputes?
  4. What is the time to degree for the 10 most recent students?
  5. How frequently does the advisor meet one-on-one with their students?
  6. How frequent are lab meetings?
  7. Does the lab participate in regular journal clubs?
  8. How accessible is the advisor for discussion?

Funding:

  1. What is the funding situation? You want him/her to have at least one R01 (or HHMI funding) that will not expire for a few years. Having to perform only very cheap experiments can seriously impact your graduate education.
  2. Will the advisor help me apply for fellowships?
  3. How many new students will the advisor be able to take this year? How many students are looking to rotate in the lab?

Work hours:

  1. How many hours per week are students expected to work? Do the advisor prefer students to work a set schedule?
  2. What is the policy regarding vacations? Will I be able to return to my home country for a month each year?
  3. How much time does he/she spend away from campus? Is he/she available during the summer

Careers:

  1. What is the advisor’s opinion on training for nonacademic careers? Does he/she have any connections to people in the field you’re interested in?
  2. Would I be able to take time off to do an internship?
  3. What careers did your previous students pursue?
  4. What conferences do students in this lab usually attend? How would I afford conference attendance?

Other:

  1. What makes someone a good fit for this group?
  2. Are there other students in the lab? If there are no other students, there may be underlying funding difficulties, you may be lonely, and there may be a lot of pressure on you to produce results. However, you will get a lot of attention and be guaranteed the best project.
  3. Similarly, what is the age/level of the PI? Young PIs are excited and driven and you will likely produce the most important data for their lab. However, they are also lowly funded, untested, and do not carry a lot of weight for fellowship applications. Very old PIs might be winding down their lab in preparation for retirement.
  4. Are there postdocs in the lab? Postdocs are a great teaching resource, especially if your advisor hasn’t touched a pipette in decades.
  5. Does the lab have a technician? This is a huge bonus as you won’t have to spend time doing menial tasks and can focus on the research.
  6. Ask the current students if they would choose the advisor again if they could do it over.
  7. Is the atmosphere of the lab conducive with your work style? Do you want a party atmosphere, absolute quiet, or something in between? Does the lab organize group social activities?
  8. Also think about the department. Does it offer opportunity to practice presenting? What technology/equipment is available? Is it collegial?
  9. What is the reputation of the advisor within the discipline?
  10. Is the advisor likely to remain on the faculty for the duration of your degree work?
  11. Overall, do you think you will be able to honestly and confidently talk with this person when you have disagreements about project direction? Will you be able to ask them for time off? Will you feel supported during the lowest points of graduate school?