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How do I choose a PhD adviser?

Updated: Oct 10, 2021

Choosing a PhD adviser is one of the most consequential decisions you will be making early in your career. For the next four to six years, you will be working in your adviser’s lab, doing experiments under their guidance and writing papers with them. For the rest of your life, your adviser’s name will be academically attached to yours, your relationship immortalized in your dissertation, CV, and academic family tree. And even though academia still pretends it’s a meritocracy, the fact is working under the right adviser can open doors for you – doors that might be harder to open for those without the right pedigree.

So how do you choose your adviser? It is a very personal choice and should really be up to you, but I can share my experience and you can take away whatever you want from it. Feel free to tailor these strategies to suit your own preferences and career goals. In my case, I took the following considerations into account when choosing my PhD adviser and thesis lab.

1. What research questions are you interested in?

I came to grad school with a specific interest in gene regulation, specifically in the question of how diverse cell types can arise from a single genome. In the US, we spend our first year rotating between different labs to find out if we are a good fit for these labs. Because I had a very specific research interest, it was easy to narrow down potential labs. I browsed through their list of publications to get an idea of what they have been working on for the past five years. However, do note that published papers usually represent work that has wrapped up. There is a significant delay between publications and actual experiments in the lab – that is, while a lab’s latest publications may reflect its focus, it is possible that this focus has shifted during the time it took to publish these papers, and current projects in the lab may involve totally different topics. To get a sense of ongoing research in the lab, I reached out to the PIs (Principal Investigators, a.k.a Professors) to talk about their current work and potential projects for my rotation.

Robert is a PhD student in the lab of Oliver Hobert at Columbia University/HHMI, studying how a nervous system is programmed and how it can be reprogrammed

If you are still exploring your research interests, you can cast a wider net and talk to more PIs. If you are at all in the right program, your interest should be piqued by at least a few labs. In my program, we had weekly Pre-Research Seminars, where PIs would come and talk about the work in their lab, with the goal of attracting students to rotate with them. Don’t be shy to approach PIs – they are looking for students too!

2. What kind of mentor do you want?

Before I started my rotations, I made a list of traits that I would like my adviser to have. It’s too embarrassing to share, but it included things like “wants me to succeed” and “not a micromanager”. This list should reflect the mentorship style that you think works best for you. Do you want a mentor who guides you every step of the way or someone who gives you the space to explore on your own? Do you want a PI you can be friends with, or do you prefer to keep some distance?

During my rotations, I made it a point to ask the trainees (students and postdocs) what they thought of their PIs. We regularly had lunch or coffee together. It is through these casual conversations that the personality of a PI is revealed (along with department gossip). Has the PI ever gotten mad? What are they like when they’re mad? What happens when they think you’re progressing too slowly? Does the PI have scientific rivals? More often than not, trainees in the lab will be honest about their experiences.

I also strongly recommend asking about and seeking out people who have left the lab in bad terms. Find out why they left the lab. Was it because of an issue with the PI? And of course, if you are doing a rotation, you will be personally interacting with the PI. Through your meetings (or lack thereof), you will find out their personality and mentorship style. After your rotation, you can then go back to your list and see if the PI has satisfied your criteria.

3. Are they accepting students?

If your program offers lab rotations, you may encounter PIs which accept rotation students but are unsure if they can actually afford to take graduate students. In most cases like this, PIs may be waiting for a grant to come through. However, there are also PIs who have no intention of recruiting graduate students but accept rotation students anyway because they’re free labor. You must clarify whether the PI has space for a graduate student from the very beginning.

4. What is the lab culture like?

In grad school, you will also be in constant interaction with other members of the lab, even more so than the PI. Some labs can seem attractive on paper but have a toxic work environment. If you have the opportunity to do rotations, immerse yourself in the day-to-day operations of the lab as much as possible. Are lab members friends with each other? Do they hang out outside of lab? Does your personality fit in the lab? You may be very interested in a lab’s research but be unhappy working with other lab members. In the short-term it may make sense to take the risk and join such a lab, but the daily grind of graduate school can wear people down. Without the right co-workers around, you could be very miserable down the road.

5. What is the mentor’s reputation in the field?

Contrary to popular belief, science is a very social enterprise. People have strong opinions about this, but in today’s scientific culture, who you work with might matter more than you think. Affiliating yourself with a key figure in your field can give you access to funding, valuable resources, and a great network. You can get an idea of a PI’s reputation by looking at their grants, awards, and citation metrics like the h-index. If you’ve been in a field long enough, you probably already know which labs produce the coolest papers. It’s also a good idea to see where the lab’s alumni are now. If you’re aiming for an academic career, check how many from the lab have gone on to faculty positions.

While I advise people to aim for the top labs in their fields, working in these labs are not a guarantee of a good career. Working for big names can come with a strong pressure to perform. In contrast, smaller, newer labs can offer a more nurturing environment and the opportunity to rise with the PI.

This is simply a rough outline of the things I considered when I was looking for an adviser. We all value different things, and your list of criteria can look different from mine. Ultimately, your choice will depend on your values, personality, interests, and what you want out of your PhD. Personally, I am fortunate to have found an adviser who’s not only a trailblazer in my field but who’s also a joy to work with. I hope you find your match too!

G. Robert Aguilar is a PhD student in Neuroscience, Genetics, and Developmental Biology at Columbia University. He is currently studying how the nervous system develops over a lifetime and how it arose through evolutionary time.

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