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Advisor Red Flags: choosing your project May 26, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, grad school, research, science.
Tags: , , , ,

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?


1. NJS - May 26, 2011

Good guidelines for new grad students.

One I’ve run into is that I talk to an adviser several times about the same project, but every time I talk to him the focus seems to shift. This may be a sign that the adviser isn’t very good at helping students focus. This only becomes apparent once you’re working with someone, unfortunately.

mareserinitatis - May 26, 2011

I think that sometimes the advisor is the one lacking focus…and it’s hard to give that to students when one doesn’t have it.

2. GEARS - May 26, 2011

I’m not so sure you guessed correctly with #3 (sometimes this would be a better project). And here’s the reason. As an advisor (and I’ve recently had this situation) your first thoughts are “does this student have an idea/topic/plan they they are enthusiastic about?”. If so, then the next step is to see how flexible they are. That’s where the suggestion comes into place. Profs use that to see how well a student can be molded (or unmolded) or to try and maneuver the project so there is some overlap with their current research.

The real important issue here is the attitude of the student. If they’re working on something that they want to do, they’re going to be more diligent and have more invested.

Maybe that’s more like what you’re talking about with your two good responses, but there could be some subtle differences (or maybe a communication barrier) there.

mareserinitatis - May 26, 2011

Like I said – it depends. I agree completely that the project is something the person should be excited about. However, if they’re proposing something, you would hope that’s what they were looking for. Although you’re right – that’s not always the case.

3. Stanley Ma - May 26, 2011

I asked my potential advisors what projects that had in mind. I then chose one.

4. Dr 27 - May 26, 2011

Great advice and great tips too. My PhD PI was very clear about what the lab did and what we needed to do to achieve it, so I really didn’t go into the trouble of coming up with my own research question. Our lab was very different from many hypothesis-driven labs in the sense that we determined structures of biological molecules and then hypothesized about what and where to go/do next. My PD advisor and project remind me of scenario #2 and what happened to your friend. I am paperless and I wasn’t really into the project. For that reason I think your entry is great to keep at hand in the postdoc stage too, especially when changing fields and having a 180 done to the mentoring style one is used to.

5. V - May 26, 2011

Unfortunately, I think it is very difficult to determine if you will work well with an advisor until you’re already working with them. But some things to look out for include their management and communication style (does it jive with you), how realistic are they about what can actually be achieved (my advisor can’t reign himself in, and I ended up with a 15 year PhD project–fortunately, my committee stepped in), and how does your research fit in with other grad students in your group? I am the only person in my department (including my advisor, who has moved into a different field) who does what I do. I was isolated from other grad students in my group, instead of being able to use them as a resource. This leads me to another point: in grad school, your peers are invaluable. On more than one occasion I have asked another grad student for help, their opinion, or how they would approach a problem. A final comment on advisors: it’s great if you like your advisor as a person, but someone you like isn’t necessarily the best person to be your manager or your mentor through your graduate program. If you’re excited about your project, work well under their management style, and feel like they will be a good mentor to you and help build your professional network, and you can tolerate their so-so personality…pick that person. Seriously, you won’t regret it.


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