Sunday, February 25, 2007

How to Pick a Group - Part 1

It's that time of year: visiting weekend, website surfing, the sweet smell of springtime flowers, and a huge decision waiting to be made. This is a post for those entering grad school that have the ever-important decision on their plates of picking a graduate adviser.

Let me start by relaying my experience with graduate advisers (I've had 2) and in the process explaining why I'm even bothering to write about this. My two advisers shall be referred to from here on as oldie and newbie.

Oldie was my my adviser for my first year of grad school. He was an older man. He was an older professor. He was established. He had a big group. He was extremely charismatic. His research was on a subject I was absolutely enthralled about. But the most important characteristic of oldie was that he was a negligent. That's right, he was a negligent adviser. He promised to fund me for the entirety of my first year and said directly to me that the long term funding prospects were great. He promised this funding right up to the second semester's start and lo and behold it never arrived. I had to teach. Oldie also didn't guide his grad students at all. He had no motivation. He was old and established. He fell asleep during group seminars. He didn't respond to emails until about the 12th time you emailed him. He was negligent. The research I was so enthralled about started looking worse and worse. He was charismatic, and it turned out he knew how to hype his work like it was goin outta style. New ideas were getting hard to come by and I slowly figured out that the group was being carried by an older graduate student who was just about to graduate. Oldie ended up leaving my school at the end of my second semester leaving about 10 group members high and dry. And so began my experience with newbie.

But we shall save newbie for another day and summarize lessons I feel I learned from my experience with oldie:

  • Don't pick a school based on wanting to work for one group only.
  • Choose group culture and advising style over research specifics.
  • If you can't choose between hands on and hands off, go with hands on.
  • Ask grad students not in the group of interest if they would join that group. Listen to them.
  • Ask grad students very direct questions like: "Are you happy here?" "What are the three worst qualities about your adviser/group?" "If you had the choice, what other group would you join?"
In Part 2, I'll discuss newbie and summarize lessons from my (ongoing) experience with him. Then in subsequent parts I'll expand on things I think should be stressed. In the meantime I want to emphasize the importance of visiting weekend and stress the last two bullets above. You only have a couple of days to be there, talk to them, and feel what it's like. Take advantage of it!

Also, all of these points are my opinions based on some hard knock experience. Your experiences may be different. Or they may not. Let me know what you think.

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