Thursday, December 13, 2012

Things I Wish I Knew 4 years Ago: Reflections on choosing and making the most out of your advisor selection

Author: Your local 5th Year Ph.D. Student

So here I am in the last year of my Ph.D. studies (theoretically!). Graduate school has been long and challenging. I’ve grown in many ways and there is no way I could’ve predicted the person I would become and the things that would interest me. When I started my degree, I was 100% sure that I wanted to become a pharmaceutical researcher. Now I have begun applying for management consulting, pharmaceuticals, chemical manufacturing, and even semiconductor manufacturing jobs! Before I even started at my university, I knew who I wanted my advisor to be. It’s interesting to take a look back now 4 years later and see how things have changed and what I’ve learned. 

How I chose my advisor

Before I started grad school, I wrote to 2-3 professors at each school I was interested in attending, and asked about their research and let them know a little about me. This helped because my department required new graduate students to interview several professors before listing our top 3 choices and being matched. Since I already had a head start, my advisor of interest already knew about me! He introduced me to one of his colleagues and they became my co-advisors. Both advisors had very large lab groups. In speaking to current members of each group, I got the feeling that since the groups were so large that the working style of each advisor was more hands off and that you should be self-motivated and self-directing. I thought this would be fine for me!

Some things I learned

Four years later, I think I may have done better being in a small group with more one-on-one attention from my advisor. This could have provided me with more mentoring and direction in the process. Being in a larger group makes it easier to get lost in the crowd. It’s something I see now, but I don’t think I could’ve really known until it was experienced. Sometimes I feel like my experience was like being thrown in a pool and then having to teach myself to took me a while, but I figured things out. I’m still figuring some things out.

Knowing your work style can really help you. I had participated in several research internships during my undergrad years as well as extracurricular leadership activities so I thought I knew, but it ended up working out differently in the case of my graduate research. However, I eventually figured out a way to “survive”:

  1. Identifying friends in my lab that I could go to with questions
    Even if they couldn’t always solve my problems, I still had people I could ask for suggestions and sometimes point me to literature I hadn’t seen myself. 
  2. Developing a supportive group of friends outside of my lab that I could go to to vent
    This is valuable regardless of whether you are in a small or large group. Even when the outside of the lab group of friends aren’t in your field, I’m sure you’ve noticed many of us go through the same trials and it’s always helpful to be reminded that you’re not the only one. 
  3. Developing relationships with professors outside of my lab as mentors
    I was lucky to have professors I took classes with or met through extracurricular activities that I could check in with once in a while and let them know about my progress and ask questions about proceeding through the Ph.D. in general. They spoke more candidly than my advisors so it was great to be able to hear from others who had already made it through.
  4. Consciously keeping visible within my lab
    I made sure that when it was my turn to present in group meetings that I did my best to communicate effectively both my results and sometimes what obstacles I was facing (something most graduate students are afraid to admit). My advisors would make rounds through the lab at certain parts of the day or week so I would make sure to be in my office or in the lab at those times. I would also arrange meetings with them sometimes to update them on my progress and ask questions. More regular meetings probably would have been even more beneficial.
One thing that could’ve helped was if senior members of my group could’ve let people know their expertise so that they could be available as resources. Choosing a lab group is almost as important as choosing an advisor. They are the people you will be spending the most time with on a daily basis and the ones more closely experiencing what you’re going through! They will be your resources and in some cases your competition. Choose wisely!


Anonymous said...

Very Interesting article ' Local 5th year PhD', I certainly enjoyed reading it, and I will take your advice to heart.


Anonymous said...

I had similiar experiences as a grad student. Thanks for sharing what you learned!

Anonymous said...

Bonding with labmates that won't stab you in the back is important. Always cover your back. Coming from was a nurturing undergrad environment, I was surprised at how cut throat some people in grad school could be. People stole data, intentionally destroyed others experiments, lied to advisors, cheated etc. Good friends and relations are the key to survival in grad school! -SK

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