What I’m looking for in a graduate advisor. And why it’s good for science.

Applying to doctoral graduate programs is an arduous, time-consuming, and often ambiguous process. Testing, essay writing, and networking aside, it’s hard to identify the right program/person to spend the next 5-7 years with. I spent countless hours reading up on promising schools. And once I selected the faculty members conducting research that peaked my interest and matched my background, I needed to find out if they were even considering students. University websites are often out of date, and some faculty are unclear with their future plans and expectations. So I, and many other bright-eyed students, send thoughtful emails and cross our fingers on a reply:

“Dear Dr. So-And-So, I LOVE your work on [blank], and it is related to research I have done on [blank] in Dr. [Blank’s] lab. Are you taking students next year?”

A little more transparency would not only save everyone a lot of time and anxiety, it could determine the future of a science. Professors must receive dozens of these emails every Fall. And I imagine many students ask about out-dated research agendas based on the out-dated websites. It’s understandable that professors often fail to post updates on their activities and respond to these emails. Their time is being pulled in many directions, and expectations are growing. But, as Ben A. Barres (2013) argues, strong student-advisor relationships are integral to the continued success and innovation of a scientific field. Too often students never receive a clear answer and so spend a lot of time and money applying to programs completely in the dark. Prospective students pray their faculty member of choice is actually considering students for the next year, still working on topics listed online, and not going on sabbatical or reducing the size of their lab.

A breathe of fresh air. I came across several professors and programs that posted clear information on what they expected out of doctoral applicants. Here is the best example-A short blog post saving prospective students the time and money of applying to a non-match, and professors/administrators the time sifting through emails and applications not directed toward their current and future research agenda. The post made it immediately apparent whether or not this faculty member was a good match for me.

So in the interest of transparency, time-saving, and sustained success of the field, here’s what I am looking for in a graduate advisor. 

Note: I used Barres (2013) as a guide and focus on my field of interest, psychology.

Are they a good scientist?

  1. How many publications do they have? How many are recent? How many are in my area of interest?
  2. What is the impact of their publications on the field (h-index)?
  3. Are they publishing research (not just reviews) in top journals (i.e. are they innovators in their field?)
  4. Has their lab or center recently secured major grant funding, such as NIH, NSF, NIMH, etc.

Are they a good mentor?

  1. Get in touch with your prospective mentor’s current students and ask them questions about their mentor. Make sure you are in a space where they can answer honestly.
  2. Do they spend time with students discussing science? Good mentors spend time with their students designing good experiments, interpreting/analyzing data, writing research papers and grants, reviewing papers for journals, and practicing talks for conferences.
  3. Do they encourage students to engage in activities (that may be outside of their research interests) that are good for the student’s training? Activities such as TAing, attending conferences, and taking summer courses or workshops.
  4. Is there room to develop your own ideas or are you a slave to faculty research?
  5. Are they aloof, a micro-manager or somewhere in between?
  6. Is there a team spirit in the lab/center, where people collaborate effectively and are not pit against each other in a fight for attention, resources or scholarly success?
  7. Are lab meetings group discussions in which everyone contributes their thoughts and ideas, or is it primarily a time where the faculty member lectures or dictates to presenters what they should do next?
  8. What is the Postdoc to PhD student ratio in the lab/center? A high ratio might be an indication that your prospective mentor doesn’t see mentorship as a priority.
  9. How big is the lab/center? If it is relatively large it might indicate that your prospective mentor doesn’t have the time to give you individual attention.
  10. How many joint-publications and first-authors do their current students have?
  11. Ask for their CV if it is not available online.
  12. Ask for a list of the faculty’s former students. Find out what these students are doing today. Are they still in research? How successful are they? Are their achievements something you aspire toward?

Are their research interests similar to mine?

A point about this final question worth noting before diving in. I will quote Barres (2013) directly because he just puts it so well:

“An advisor should not be selected solely because he or she is the one researcher at your university that happens to work on the precise focused topic that you think you are most interested in. […] In my experience, this is exactly what nearly every graduate student does! Keep in mind that if you like solving puzzles, as all scientists do, there will be many different puzzles that you will find equally rewarding to work on. […] Begin your search for an advisor by casting as broad of a net as possible.”

Ok, now I’ll throw my broad net:

  1. Do they conduct experiments or studies that explore the etiology of health behavior, disease, or illness?
  2. Are they interested in development or evaluation of real-world health interventions or programs?
  3. Do they use or have an interest in developing research or interventions that use mobile or internet-based technologies?
  4. Do they employ diverse methodologies? Do they collaborate across the disciplines of psychology, public health, sociology, or economics?
  5. Are they interested in one or more of the following topics?: Health Behavior Change, Theory-Driven Psychology Interventions, Health Promotion, Disease Prevention, Emotion Regulation, Health Message Framing, Obesity, Exercise, Nutrition, Built Environment, Decision-Making, Mindfulness, Adverse Events or Trauma, Stress, Psychophysiology, Methodology, Technology for Health Research, Vulnerable or High-Need Populations.

I hope this post provides some useful suggestions for students applying to graduate programs. Please feel free to add ideas in the comments. I also hope this post underlines the importance of transparency and openness in science. With the advent of internet-based technologies, a move toward clarity, free-flow of information, and open communication will help science continue to flourish in the 21st century. And it might ease the migraine-inducing match-making process for students and faculty alike.


Barres, B.A. (2013). How to pick a graduate advisor. Neuron, 80 (2), 275-279. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2013.10.005


3 thoughts on “What I’m looking for in a graduate advisor. And why it’s good for science.

  1. I’m a Test Dummy: Some Thoughts on GRE Prep – A blog by Richie LeDonne

  2. As a rising undergraduate junior gearing up for grad school apps in a little over a year, just wanted to say thank you for this thoughtful and well-written post! These are definitely things I will consider when compiling my final list of schools to apply to, and I feel like you hit on a great range of subjects, spanning quality of research to the professor’s mentoring style. Love how your blog communicates science and discusses science in a thoughtful, comprehensible way, too.

    • Hi Thomas, Thank you for the kind words! I hope your senior year is going well, and good luck with grad school applications! I’m glad someone finds my ramblings are (at least a little) useful. 🙂

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