As an undergrad, I approached assertions that “graduate school is the best time of your life” with the same skepticism as today’s astute students. Coming from a small undergraduate and master’s serving institution, I didn’t know enough about the life of a doctoral student to make a fair assessment. And so, I approached graduate school with cautious optimism. What I learned along the way is that graduate school can be a rewarding experience—if you choose wisely.
You will have to make many choices as a graduate student, but perhaps the most important one is choosing your advisor. The biggest upshot of being a graduate student is the fact that you have some say in whom you work for. In the end, faculty-student pairings have to be a mutually agreeable decision. In the end, if a faculty member does not have funds to support a graduate student, you may have to go with your second or third choice. Students can, however, narrow the playing field if they take into consideration a few key questions.
Do your personalities mesh? This is the one shot in life you will have in choosing your own boss; you might as well make it count. Make a point to talk to potential faculty mentors in a variety of settings. Meet in the office to get a feel for how one-on-one discussions will go. What does their body language tell you? Do they listen as well as they talk? If they have other students, ask to attend a lab meeting to see how the whole group interacts. Does the advisor encourage discussion and offer feedback or does she merely give the group instructions for the following week? What response do you get when you greet the professor in an informal setting or pass in the hallway?
What management style do you prefer? Do you like a dynamic partnership or do you prefer to receive closer direction? You should be able to assess management style from assessing the group dynamics as suggested above. Talk to other students in the group or in collaborating groups to get a better picture of day-to-day interactions.
Are you interested in the research? Selecting an advisor on personality and management style alone does not guarantee a happy graduate tenure. If you cannot envision yourself actually performing the research done in a particular group, then perhaps this professor would make a good thesis committee member rather than your graduate advisor.
What are the expected outcomes for students in this group? Different graduate programs have different deliverables for graduate students. Some are set at the university level; advisors also may set their own expectations before they will allow a student schedule his/her defense. Knowing this up front will allow you to make fair comparisons if you are considering several groups.
Where have the previous graduate students taken their careers? Knowing this may provide some insight into how successful the faculty member is at training graduate students for the next level. It will also give you an idea of viable next steps in your own career.
Can you work for this person for the next 3-7 years of your life? This is the most important question. Remember, when you join a graduate group, you are choosing your boss…and coworkers…for a substantial chunk of your life. Choose wisely.
Kristene “Tina” Henne is Argonne’s Postdoctoral Program Coordinator. As a program coordinator, she facilitates the postdoc appointment process, postdoc career development, and advises the Postdoctoral Society of Argonne. Henne has a Ph.D. in biological sciences from Purdue University, a B.S. in biology from Governors State University, and a A.A.S. in radiography from Kankakee Community College. She is a member of the National Postdoctoral Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the American Society for Microbiology and the Association for Women in Science.