January 2013

Things to look for in a thesis adviser

On the scale of human interactions, the relationship between a graduate student and his or her thesis adviser (a.k.a. major professor) lies somewhere between that of roommates locked into a long-term lease and a marriage. Finding a good match among the faculty typically is the single most important determinant of the quality of a graduate-school experience. It is therefore critical that entering students get to work early and diligently to learn all they can not only about potential mentors and their research programs but about themselves.

Ask the following questions:

  • • Is this potential adviser someone you respect, someone you would like to model yourself after?
  • • Where are the potential adviser’s former students? Do they tend to transition to the types of postgraduate and professional opportunities that appeal to you?
  • • What kinds of skills are you likely to develop in this lab?
  • • Do students from this lab get their work published in quality journals?
  • • What is the lab group like? Are they hard-working and enthusiastic? Do they get along with one another?
  • • What do you need from a mentor? What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • • Are you likely to respond well to this person’s particular training and managerial style?

Notice that the list does not ask questions about the potential adviser’s area of research. The biggest mistake a student can make in selecting a major professor is ignoring the signs of a potentially poor match because he or she is enamored of the faculty member’s area of research. A research project is a tool, a vehicle for transforming curious and committed students into capable, independent research scientists whose skills are translatable and evolving. As long as a student finds a project interesting and challenging, labels matter little in the long run.

A student–mentor relationship based on mutual respect, good communication and shared expectations offers a richness and depth that will animate your entire career.

Photo of Peter J. KennellyPeter J. Kennelly (pjkennel@vt.edu) is a professor and the head of the department of biochemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and chairman of the ASBMB Education and Professional Development Committee.

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