Finding the right advisor, choosing among potential advisors, or changing from one advisor to the next can be some of the most challenging aspects of undergraduate and graduate research. In the first-ever Astrobites panel event on March 9, five panelists of different backgrounds and from different universities offered stories and suggestions for navigating the world of research advising. In this beyond post, we (the moderators and panelists) summarize the key elements and expand upon them, with links to helpful resources for further reading.
Moderators: Jason Hinkle and Will Saunders
Panlists: Ellis Avallone, Pratik Gandhi, Gourav Khullar, Sabina Sagynbayeva, and Ashley Walker
Table of Contents
- Characteristics of a “Good Advisor”
- Different Types of Advisors
- Finding Your First Research Advisor
- Assessing Potential Advisors
- Closing Thoughts
Characteristics of a “Good Advisor”
As anyone in a PhD program can attest, the difference between a good advisor and bad advisor is like night and day. A good advisor will be your biggest advocate, and will help you balance your long-term goals with your degree requirements along the way. Based on the discussion during the webinar, here are some of the qualities you should look for in trying to find a good advisor.
Supportive of Your Goals
What does “supportive” mean? At its heart, it means your advisor has your best interests in mind. Sometimes that means letting you explore and make mistakes. Sometimes it means helping you get back on track. A supportive advisor won’t always tell you the answer to a problem (because oftentimes there isn’t one) but will help you connect to the right people and resources to answer it for yourself. A supportive advisor will change advising strategies as you advance in your program, undergraduate or graduate, and become more self-sufficient. And a supportive advisor will help you apply for grants, fellowships, graduate schools, and jobs to allow you to develop the most competitive research repertoire possible.
Being supportive also means supporting your initiatives outside of research, including outreach. Some advisors are highly involved in outreach and others are not, but both can and should support your goals.
Identifies Reasonable and Achievable Projects
Undergrads are not expected to come up with their own research projects. Neither are early grad students, though some do. So when you approach a prospective advisor as an undergrad, ask what kinds of projects are available to you. A good way to approach projects is the acronym SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. This way of thinking pertains to all goals that are professional, academic, and personal. Finally, as you progress in a PhD your advisor should help you learn how to identify feasible research projects.
Helps You Grow as a Scientist
Some of the most important experiences for grad students are presenting at conferences, writing papers, and growing a professional network. These can be daunting at first, which is why a good advisor will push you to present your work and meet new people, understanding the importance of that in the long run.
Sometimes helping you grow requires giving you critical feedback. It might be tough to hear that something you wrote isn’t ready for publication yet or you made a misstep in interpreting a research result, but critical feedback is a necessary component for growth. So long as your advisor has your best interests at heart, you know that any feedback you receive is going to help you move forward.
Resources about traits of good advisors
- “How to Pick a Graduate Advisor” by Ben A. Barres
- Specific to undergrads: “The Role of Advising in Undergraduate Research” by Marion Schwartz, Penn State University
- The Art of Being a Scientist: A Guide for Graduate Students and their Mentors (pp. 37 – 39)
- The Professor is in by Karen Kelsky
Different Types of Advisors
As there are many different types of professors and many different types of students in the world, everyone will have a different experience and perspective on what makes an advisor better or worse. You can and should decide for yourself which characteristics are more important and which are less. Here are some characteristics to consider in choosing an advisor
There are pros and cons to consider with both early-career advisors and more established advisors. First, let’s consider an early-career advisor. They likely have not advised many students and may make mistakes along the way. However, early-career advisors often have significant energy and are willing to invest their time in your success. Assistant professors are working to get tenure and associate professors are working to become full professors, meaning they likely publish more frequently. Additionally, if you remain in academia a young advisor can continue to serve as a reference and may even become a collaborator as you progress in your career.
Conversely, an established advisor has likely made their mistakes already and is confident on how to lead a graduate student through a PhD program. They also likely have a strong network of collaborators in their field. Nonetheless, older advisors are often busy and have less time to devote to their students. They may also be retiring soon, which limits their availability to you as a resource as you leave graduate school. You should ask any potential advisor if they plan to retire soon, since a PhD typically takes 5-7 years to complete.
In summary, neither an early-career or a well-established advisor is inherently better. At the end of the day, it comes down to finding a person that you connect positively with and feel that you can work successfully with for several years.
Hands-on vs. hands-off
This is truly one of those areas where everyone is different. Do you want an advisor who is going to look at your code and help you debug? Or do you want an advisor who is available when you need help but otherwise leaves you to do your work? The same is true of meeting preferences. Some advisors like to check in almost daily, whereas others hold only weekly meetings. Whether you need a hands-on advisor or a hands-off advisor is completely up to your preferences. However, to identify if your advisor is hands-on or hands-off, you will need ask questions in the first meetings like “how many times a week do you prefer to meet and discuss the project?”; “is it ok if I ask you all my questions about this paper/software/etc?” or ask directly “are you hands-on or hands-off advisor?”
An advising relationship is, well, a relationship. A PhD program is a long haul and having an advisor who you feel comfortable working with is critical to your performance. That’s not to say you need to be best friends with your advisor, just that you get along and can work very closely for many years. We all know how upsetting a personality conflict can be; you want to avoid that in an advisor-student relationship. It’s important to have honest conversations with your prospective advisors to get to know them better.
For undergrad students looking for a research position, funding is not nearly as important. The reason being that undergrads can be paid as a work-study position or from university funds for a summer program, for instance. For grad students, funding is much more important. What differs is the source.
Professors who have active grants will be able to pay grad students for their research. Those without grants would still be able to advise you, but the students have to find funding elsewhere. You might be able to obtain funding on your own, from a national grant, or you might receive a teaching assistant position that pays your stipend. Many grad students find teaching rewarding, but typically decrease their time spent teaching as they advance in the PhD, something that requires a source of funding. It’s always smart to ask prospective advisors about their current grants.
Resources about advisor style
Finding your first research advisor
For students looking to start their first research project, know that countless students have gone through the same process. In fact, those undergraduate students who have done research are an invaluable resource for learning about undergraduate research in your department. Additionally, if your department has an undergraduate advisor, they typically have the inside scoop on which faculty are currently looking for students. If your department has a graduate program, grad students are another excellent resource! In some cases, it is possible to work directly with them on a research project instead of working directly with a professor.
If your university or department doesn’t have professors who focus on astronomy research, there are several opportunities beyond your university. These programs typically run through the summer, and are designed to rapidly develop your research skills in just a few short months. For US citizens, the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program is hosted by several universities and observatories and offers the students the chance to get paid for working on a specific research project. Similar programs exist both within and outside the US for non-US citizens and are mentioned in the articles listed below.
Resources on finding your first advisor
- Getting Started in Undergraduate Research.
- Getting Started in Astronomy Research
- Applying to REUs and similar programs outside the US.
- Summer Internship Advice and Opportunities
Assessing potential advisors
Now that you have an idea of the traits to look for in an advisor, it’s time to dig in and start searching. A great place to start is the department website’s list of faculty. Think “Who I might be interested in working with the most?” Look for research interests that overlap with your own and be open minded about trying new fields or methods. If you’re applying to grad school, this process will help you narrow down your list of schools!
YouTube is a great tool!
A lot of current professors have given colloquia and conference talks. And we live in an amazing time: most of these talks are recorded for a greater audience! You can try to search for such talks of your potential advisor on YouTube, and this way it will be easier to understand their ongoing projects. You can also mention watching their talk in an email. Moreover, watching how someone presents makes you understand (at least a little) what kind of people they are: more serious or more easy-going, open or closed, etc. Whether these personality traits matter or not is completely up to you!
After you’ve done your homework and you have a list of prospective advisors, it’s time to get in touch with them and others in the department.
If you found someone you’re really interested in working with, another suggestion we have: write to them. Tell them why you’re interested and ask more questions about the research and the program. This way you might immediately understand if you’re getting along with them and if yours and their visions align. Yes, there are definitely people who just don’t answer prospective students but this is completely okay! It is still worth trying! Honestly, scientists love talking about their research projects. Cold emailing is fine as long as you make sure that you know what the person works on before reaching out to them. Once you’re in a graduate school and don’t know what questions to ask, check out this great list of questions you might want to ask.
Reaching out to graduate students
There’s an important thing about graduate students: most of us are very honest. It is always a good idea to reach out to graduate students to ask more about the program and the department. It is also a good idea to reach out to your potential advisor’s graduate students and ask about the atmosphere in the research group and about the advisor! Most of the graduate students are very open and happy to chat. Graduate students are also more likely to respond to an email than faculty members.
Another tool that might help in finding graduate students and potential advisors is Twitter! Twitter is a common medium for academics to share their opinions on academia-related topics or start threads about their new papers. Twitter shouldn’t be your main tool to learn about professors but it can help you get insight on the topics they care about and their style of communication.
Resources on assessing potential advisors
At the end of the day, you’re the one who is going to work with your advisor for many years during a PhD program, so the decision is ultimately a personal one. You have to go with what you’re comfortable with and use your best judgment in new situations. Take this guide and the resources linked herein as suggestions as you chart your own course through research and PhD. We wish you the best of luck!