Now That’s What I Call Grad School Advice – Finding a Good Advisor

In the next post of this series on advise to first year graduate students, I wanted to discuss finding a good advisor. Now many students entering grad school have already selected an advisor, but I think it is still worthwhile to discuss what a good advisor looks like, what an okay advisor looks like, and when you need to get the hell out ASAP.

The traditional advise to finding a good advisor typically involves asking the current grad students, and sometimes around the department to get feedback on the reputation of the advisor you are considering. While this advice is well-intentioned, I think it is very incomplete. Grad school twitter likes to pretend that bad labs are well-known throughout the department, that the students will scare you away if you just ask. Unfortunately, it is really not that simple.

First, graduate students are at a significant disadvantage in terms of power in the grad school environment. It could jeopardize their career if they speak out about a bad advisor. Second, I think very few advisors are so atrocious that every single person in their lab is conspiring to scare any new student away. Being in the grad school capital of the world that is Cambridge, I have met a lot of grad students, many with bad advisors. Only one student mentioned that the whole lab has scared away future students and thus the lab itself is dying out. In every other case, the lab continues to exist because at least some of the students in the group think the work they are doing is worth it, or they might even have a good relationship with the advisor even if other students do not.

This brings me to my belief that largely you get lucky when you select an advisor. Ideally you want a great advisor, but most likely you will just have an okay advisor. Maybe its just my experience at an institution that prioritizes research, but the primary strength of most faculty is their ability to create novel and meaningful work. You can do all the right things and ask all the right questions, and still end up with an advisor that is not a good match. Thus, it is just as important as to know when to switch away from your advisor as it is to select one.

Let me give an examples of what an okay advisor is versus what a bad advisor is, so you can understand when you have to switch. An okay advisor will meet with you once a month to provide feedback. They may be hard to schedule with, but once you have their time, they give meaningful feedback and direction. For your project, the sparsity of feedback influences your productivity as you may have to make last minute changes to accommodate your advisors requests. However, the rapport you have with your advisor is positive, and while the repetition of meeting may hinder your progress at times, you are still making a net positive gain.

A bad advisor will meet with you once a month to provide feedback. They are also difficult to schedule with, and you never know if you have prepared right for the meeting. Their feedback harshly criticizes your work, and does not provide direction to research areas your advisor deems as more redeemable. You leave these meetings feeling unconfident about your abilities as a researcher, and uncertain what your advisor wants next time.

These two examples are close on paper, but they differ in how they make you feel. In one case, the okay advisor may not be as supportive as you need, but you are still able to get constructive feedback. Unfortunately that feedback may come with tight deadlines, but you are kept on track with what the advisor wants and when. In the abusive case, you are left in a puddle of uncertainty and anxiety. You do not know what to do exactly for your advisor, just that the results you presented so far is not sufficient. You do not feel respected as an employee.

When you’re speaking with students, you have to determine if the example they share with you follow the example of the okay advisor or the bad advisor. Ask questions about how supportive the current advisor is. This support takes the form of number of meetings, collaborative nature of the project, ability to get written feedback, and expectations on turnaround to implement said feedback. You should also ask if anyone has left the group, and then try to contact them separately to understand the circumstances of why they left.

When you read these two descriptions, it can seem like I’m providing trite examples. But when you have a bad advisor, you are so focused on trying to compensate for your perceived shortcomings that you don’t see the forest from the trees. Especially because your advisor may be nice some weeks, when the bad interactions come it can seem just like you aren’t doing enough as a student. But advisors should be supporting you with collaborators, clear direction, and an understanding that delays occur. Even if there are good weeks, that doesn’t excuse the bad weeks. Because advisors that are good advisors, or advisors that are even okay advisors, don’t have bad weeks. Chandra Prescott-Weinstein has a really great article on signs of abusive advising and if there’s anything you should take away from this essay, its to read her article. Please recognize that just because there are good parts, it doesn’t excuse past bad behavior. Academics pride themselves on the huge disparity between academia and industry, but try to imagine it as an industry job. Could you imagine someone in the real world treating you this way? If you are in abusive situation, that answer is likely no.

To conclude this article, I want to provide some formative steps you can take in addition to speaking with current students to determine whether or not someone may be a good advisor. It can be difficult to list questions you can ask a potential advisors because people can lie. No question you can ask in advance will filter out the bad ones. Knowing that there will always be that risk, here are some questions I think are good to ask

  • If a student is not meeting your expectations, how do you tell them, and what do you do to make sure they are back on track?
  • How often do you give feedback to students about their progress that semester, or in the overall PhD? What form does this feedback take?
  • How often do you meet with your students?
  • How often do you expect students to publish in your lab? What happens if a student misses a publishing deadline?

You can also read your advisor’s CV for clues as well. Some positive indicators that your potential advisor is a good mentor would include a consistent history of volunteering, especially with STEM outreach programs, teaching certifications, and student nominated awards for past mentoring. These activities demonstrate an advisor that recognizes the value of supporting and engaging with their community.

So to summarize, my advise when you’re looking for a good advisor:

  • DO talk with current grad students in your potential lab, talk with other students in the department, and try to reach out to students that have left the lab to get a sense of your potential advisor’s reputation
  • DO know the signs of a bad advisor, and know that if you are being treated badly, it is not your fault. You need to find a new advisor.
  • DO read the advisor’s CV to look for a track record of mentoring or volunteering.
  • DO ask the uncomfortable questions about how your advisor handles difficult mentoring situations. Listen carefully to how the advisor speaks about their students.

Here are some websites whose advice I incorporated into this article.

2 thoughts on “Now That’s What I Call Grad School Advice – Finding a Good Advisor

  1. I just found out about your website! Great advice! For graduate school applications, sometimes it lists what faculty I am interested in. Do I need to be absolutely sure that the faculty I list will be good advisors and do a significant amount of research and asking past and current grad students before submitting the application?


    1. Sometimes it can be hard to get in touch with the faculty and students before applications are due, so I wouldn’t stress out if you aren’t able to make contact/vet the professor and potential lab thoroughly before you submit an application. The vast majority of schools host open houses, and that’s a great opportunity to get more information about the culture of the lab and the reputation throughout the department.


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