CMU finished making acceptance decisions for the computer science department and I opted to be a student contact for a some of the admits. One of them asked me about choosing an advisor and specifically what factors he should consider in making this decision. This is a really important decision for incoming and first year graduate students that I felt it warranted adding to my previous series on graduate school.
Disclaimer: As with everything I write, this is almost entirely my opinion on this matter. It is a very important decision so I highly recommend listening to what other people have to say and talking to a lot of people about this. My experience is also very limited so any opinions should be viewed in that light.
First, choosing an advisor is a very subjective decision. It depends largely on what you are looking for and what works well for you. For example, if you are very self-motivated and independent, it may be better to have an advisor that is less hands on and vice-versa. That being said there are some factors that are more important than others, and some factors that are all-together not very important. It is often hard to evaluate an advisor along all of these axes without spending a significant amount of time working with him/her and presumably you don’t want to spend two years figuring out if an advisor is good for you. Fortunately, in many cases there are more readily observable factors that are correlated with these, and keeping in mind that there are always exceptions to the rule, the observable factors can be used to make a much faster evaluation.
- Research Interest – This is the most important thing. Your advisor will most likely be funding you, so they will want you to do work that can fit under their grants. If you want to do something else because you don’t find what they want you to do to be interesting, most of them time you will have to work on that in your free time. Find an advisor who will let you work on what you want to work on. This doesn’t mean that they necessarily give you more freedom, it just means that they are interested in the things that you want to work on. An advisor’s interests is strongly correlated (kind of obviously) with the articles they have published. However, interests change, so recent papers are better indicators. Also, sometimes an advisor will fund you with a specific grant, and that grant may reflect a new direction for the advisor, so really the best way to find out what an advisor wants you to work on is to simply talk to them about what you want to work on and what they want you to work on.
- Compatibility — It is really important that you can have productive meetings with your advisor. If you do not have a good interaction with them, your meetings will not be very productive and your research will suffer. This does not necessarily mean that they should be your friends; it means that your meetings should be productive. Being friends with your advisor is completely orthogonal; it can be good but I don’t think it is necessary. It’s hard to assess compatibility without actually interacting with the advisor so no obvious correlations here. I recommend having several meetings with a potential advisor before committing to being their student. It is also worthwhile to talk to their students and former students to not only see what they work on but also get a feel for how the professor tends to operate. More on this later.
- Advising Style — Advisors have different ways of managing their students. Some like to be very hands on, meaning that they will work directly on your research problems with you and help you write papers. Others are much less so; they may have you work with more senior students or post-docs and they may be much more removed from your problems. Some push their students to publish early and often, others are less opinionated about publishing or even don’t let students publish as much as they want to. There are many different dimensions to advising style but there is no clear optimum. Each style has different pros and cons and it is important that you decide which aspects you care about more. For example, if you are not very self-motivated, a hands-on advisor could be good for you because they will make sure you continue to make progress on your research. On the other hand, if you are self-motivated, a hands-on advisor could be annoying, because you have to prepare things to talk to them about every week or so. If an advisor is less involved in your career, you may get sidetracked or lost, and have minimal research output. On the other hand, it gives you freedom to explore and really find problems that interest you. Anyway, I hope that you see my point; there are lots of options here but you need to think about what is right for you. Some correlated factors: age, tenure status, number of students. I’ll write a bit about these below because they can be very informative for many of the subsequent unobservable factors.
- Availability — Most professors are pretty busy, but some are much more so than others. Some travel on a very regular basis and others generally stay on or near campus. This could affect how much time you have to meet with them. Sometimes this is a problem and sometimes this is not; it really depends on your working style. This is often correlated with age, tenure status, number of students and fame.
- Fame — Some advisors are certainly more famous than others. This has its pros and cons. On one hand, their opinion is held in high regard so their approval of you carries a lot of weight in the community. They also typically have a lot of contacts that can be very valuable as you look for internships and jobs later on in your graduate career. On the other hand, along with fame comes increased travel and decreased availability which has direct implications for you. So while there are perks to having a famous advisor, ultimately your will work have to speak for itself. If because they cannot spend as much time with you, you don’t end up doing amazing work, the perks that they bring will be all but useless. Consequently, I think it is really more important that you find an advisor that can help you do great research rather than one that can give you these auxiliary perks. Moreover, you will also have many opportunities to find internships and network for yourself when you go to conferences, so you don’t necessarily need your advisor to help you establish connections.
- Funding — Different schools/programs approach funding differently, so this may or may not be an issue. Typically, an advisor won’t take you on as a student unless they have funding for you. Before you get excited about working with someone, make sure that they can actually support you. In my program, you should be explicit about it. Actually, ask your potential advisor, “Can you support me financially?”
The Observable Factors:
As I mentioned above, there are a lot of factors that correlate well with the ones that are a little harder to discern. Of course you have to be careful in using these as surrogates to the ones above, but I don’t think it unreasonable to make these connections.
- Age and Tenure status — Typically age and tenure status are good indicators of advising style, availability and fame. The professors incentives can completely explain this correlation. For a younger professor (also likely a untenured professor), your research output has direct implications for them getting tenure, become famous, etc. Consequently, they are much more driven and they also usually are much more hands on. Also with being young, they may not be very well established, so they can be much more available to meet with you. It is uncommon for them to be very famous, simply because they are so young. On the other hand older professors that have tenure tend to be more hands off and less pushy about publication. However, they are usually more established so they may be less available but more famous. With age also comes experience, older advisors generally have a good feel for the direction of their research area and can also have a much broader vision about their research agenda. This means they know what the big interesting problems in their field are and can help you tackle them. It can result in you doing a very cohesive body of work with large impact.
- Number of students — An advisor with a lot of students naturally has less time to devote to any single one. So there are obvious correlations to availability. There are more subtle correlations to advising style. An advisor may choose to have fewer students so that he/she can really dive into the problems those students are working on. One with more students, on the other hand, may choose to be much more removed from their students research.
What about co-advising?
In some departments/programs, co-advising is an option that should certainly be considered. Being co-advised by one young and one old professor seems like the best of both worlds in terms of the things they have to offer. You can get the guidance/availability of a younger advisor with the broader vision and connectedness of an older advisor. I don’t have any experience with co-advisors, but I’ve been told that there are some things you need to keep in mind before jumping into this sort of situation. First, you need to make sure that your advisors get along. You may (probably will) have meetings with both of your advisors together, and you need to make sure that these meetings are productive. Second, make sure that your advisors have common interests that align with what you want to work on, or you may end up working on distinct problems for each advisor, which seems suboptimal. In this sense, negotiating a co-advising relationship can actually be quite challenging, but it can also be very rewarding if it works out.
Some parting thoughts
I’ll emphasize this again. This article is mostly my thoughts on the matter and I have just one perspective. Read what other people have to say about choosing an advisor and talk to people in your department and program. You can tell them precisely what you want and they can tailor their comments to your specific situation and even the professors you are considering. Talk to the students/former students of the advisors you are thinking about and ask them a lot of questions. Ask about their advising style, their openness to co-advising, what their graduated students have gone on to do, whether they are open to students doing internships over the summer. Any question that you can think of is probably worth asking the advisor, their students or anyone else in the department. Most students (at least in my program) are more than happy to talk to you about your decision and offer whatever advice they can so don’t feel shy. One specific question I highly recommend asking is if the advisor has had any students switch away from them and why. It is important that you don’t waste a year or two working with someone only to switch advisors later and have to (more or less) start over. You should avoid this if at all possible and understanding why people leave an advisor can definitely help you do that.
Presumably if you’ve made it this far you are actually in the middle of this process or about to begin this process. In that case, I hope you find this useful and good luck in finding an advisor and your graduate career!