Advisor Red Flags: choosing your project May 26, 2011Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, grad school, research, science.
Tags: advisor, communication, funding, project, red flag
I’ve been thinking about student/advisor interactions this week, and I started wondering if I should list some of the red flags I’ve seen over time. These are the little comments or interactions that I’ve observed. I would like to say that these are things you should watch out for when choosing a grad advisor, but, sadly, they may not show up until you’re hooked on to a particular advisor.
Today’s red flag is what to be afraid of when approaching a grad advisor about a potential dissertation project. I admit that, for some people, this isn’t going to qualify: some people’s advisors choose their projects for them. However, there are some advisors who feel that their students should choose their own projects. I generally believe this is a good thing, but it can lead to problems if you don’t choose the ‘right’ project.
You see, the frustrating thing is that some advisors say they want their students to choose their own project, but they won’t give the student any guidelines for the project. No ideas of where to look, no feeling for what the advisor is comfortable advising. And, rather than trying to flesh out these details if they aren’t comfortable with the idea you’ve developed, you get one of the following responses:
1 – I don’t have funding for that.
2 – I don’t think that’s a good idea. *silence*
3 – (sometimes) This would be a better project.
One and two are bad…three depends. The first response means: I have no interest in your project, and I’m not going to take the time to show you how to write a grant. (Before you say the advisor may not have money, there is a better response. Read to the end.) If you’re planning on becoming an academic, this is a sign your advisor isn’t interested in your research and isn’t going to be a good mentor, either. The second one means the advisor may let you do the project, but they probably won’t be giving you much in the way of constructive feedback as the project progresses. They may not outright forbid you to do that, but they are going to be rather passive aggressive about helping you along.
The third comment is neutral. It may be good or it may be bad, depending on how your advisor works with you. If it’s something related to what you’re interested in but is a bit more cutting edge, it may be great. If it’s a pet project the advisor wants done, run away. I’ve seen both scenarios. The slight redirection worked out well. The other one happened to a friend who spent two years working on the project before it became obvious that nothing was going to ever come of it. He put a significant amount of effort into it, didn’t really enjoy the research, and ended up paperless at the end. He finally went in and blew up at his advisor, who let him finish up his original project and finally graduate. (Fortunately, he wasn’t looking at a job in academia or he may have had a tough time after graduation with lack of papers.)
So what are good responses? There are two responses that let you know you’ve hit the jackpot.
1 – I think that’s a good idea (and maybe, “although we want to try to look at it from this perspective”).
2 – Let’s see if we can get some funding to do that.
Either one of these is a good sign. It means they will (hopefully) be supportive by providing feedback. The second is even better, as it means the advisor is (hopefully) willing to show you the ropes and provide some mentoring opportunities.
I know the common advice on grad school is to know what you want to do before you go in. If you are that far ahead of the game, then being able to pitch your idea before you start is an excellent way to gauge how an advisor feels about an area of research. The downside is that you may really click with an advisor who may not be into a particular field of research. If you’re stuck on that area, you obviously don’t want to work with them, but if you find someone who is good to work with, you might be able to find something they’d be okay with. Sounding like you’re too focused may make them think you wouldn’t be interested in working with them. Being too focused and pitching ideas can have its drawbacks, especially if that person isn’t good about keeping people informed about their current research interests.
If you’re already with an advisor, it’s pretty important to make sure early on that you can communicate with them and that they’re giving you at least a little guidance in choosing your project. If they aren’t, that can also be a red flag.
What responses have you seen to project ideas and were they positive or were they red flags?