Mentor vs. Monolith
Finding and being a good graduate advisor
Caiti: You can never escape your advisor! That’s why, when you are choosing a graduate advisor, it’s very important to think not just about the research topic but also the relationship that you’ll be building or enduring for 5 to 10 years, and at some level for your entire career. I don’t think people realize how important a decision it is until later in their graduate career—it shapes your personal happiness and that of those around you.
One of the biggest things new Ph.D. students fail to consider is the need for accessibility of the potential advisor. You might think that you won’t mind having an advisor who travels nine months of the year, but inaccessibility can be agonizing when you’re trying to get comments on a manuscript or set up a committee meeting. An advisor from whom you can get immediate responses and feedback is worth his weight in gold.
Mohamed: I agree. Obviously, it’s crucial to pick a laboratory that is doing research that really excites you, as you will be working on it for years to come. However, the personal aspect of training cannot be ignored—some people want a lot of attention and structure, while others want to be left to figure things out on their own. Responsiveness and accessibility are crucial for everyone, and a failure in communication is the biggest cause of all graduate student strife. It’s incumbent upon mentors to make their advisees know that they are a high priority rather than a “whenever I have time” burden, and it’s incumbent on advisees to be responsive to advisor’s comments and communications. I really appreciate students who regularly reply to e-mails within 24 hours, even if the response is just, “Got your e-mail—thanks—will reply in more detail later.”
Caiti: Similarly, I think you can get a sense of whether a potential advisor will be responsive right when you first e-mail them and ask questions about their lab. If you get a rapid response that is enthusiastic and encouraging, then you can be pretty confident that they are interested in hosting you and that they won’t leave you hanging. If they don’t write back after multiple contacts, then you can pretty safely assume they’re not going to be much more attentive and responsive if, or when, you were to join their team.