In This Issue:
I want to say hello and send out a word of encouragement to many of you who have join my on-line summer thesis/dissertation writing group.
My inspiration for each newsletter comes from a variety of sources. This one came from a graduate student, in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Louisville, who wished she had had more information about choosing a lab and research advisor when she began graduate school.
As a new or prospective graduate student, what you need most is frank advice about what steps to take to ensure you complete your degree and become a successful scientist/researcher. Unfortunately, such advice is rarely available. That’s why this edition of our newsletter is dedicated to YOU, and to providing the advice you need to achieve your post-graduate goals
As a new graduate student, you’ll be making a significant transition from simply consuming knowledge to actually generating and disseminating knowledge. Though your strong academic performance in undergraduate coursework is most likely what got you here, from this point on what matters most is conceiving, conducting, and documenting research.
The most critical aspects to achieving success in these areas are:
1) Selecting an advisor who can serve as a mentor and appropriately train you to meet your goals; and
2) Selecting a research project that is substantive but can still be completed in a reasonable length of time.
Selecting the Right Advisor
All graduate students are required to select a research advisor who, in turn, must agree to serve as a mentor to the student. This agreement must be made either before you enter graduate school or soon after enrollment.
Your advisor will serve as your primary teacher, critic, coach, supporter and supervisor during your graduate school experience. You will become a research “apprentice” to the advisor, who will be responsible for providing timely, constructive feedback on your attempts to understand the nature of your academic field. It is your advisor who will help keep you on track to meet your goals, and who will also play a vital role in helping you secure resources such as office space, equipment, supplies, and coveted assistantships, fellowships, and summer employment. Once you earn your degree, it is also your advisor who will write those vital letters of recommendation.
Clearly, this is a person who will assume a high degree of responsibility for your graduate-level success. As such, the decision should not be made lightly.
Many graduate students make the mistake of choosing an advisor solely on the basis of race, gender and or a comfortable working relationship. While these are certainly key elements in selecting an advisor, there are also many other factors to consider.
Invest the time and effort into acquainting yourself with all of the faculty members in your department. In addition to reviewing all of the information included in your enrollment packet, make a strong effort to get to know each of them personally. Make one or several appointments with each to discuss their research interests and current projects, as well as your own interests. You are meeting with them to find an advisor/mentor that seems to provide the “best fit.”
Ideally, you want to work with a mentor and research group whose goals are most similar to your own. However, when reflecting on the information you uncover, take care to look at the “big picture”: rather than making a selection on one particular project, be sure to make your final choice based on the mentor (and others who work in the lab) and their overall research interests. Keep in mind that individual projects can often fail or change direction as they evolve.
While it is relatively rare to encounter a truly “bad” mentor, there are a wide variety of mentoring styles and environments; some may suit you better than others. Finding the optimal graduate training environment for YOU is balanced by your own interests; the interests and style of your mentor; and how you function in a particular mentor’s lab environment.
You can get some feel for the interests and style of a potential mentor by inquiring among other graduate students, and an even better sense if you choose to do a rotation in that lab. If your school offers lab rotation, be sure to take advantage of this opportunity. Lab rotation offers the opportunity to explore different fields (in depth) that you might find interesting (e.g., biology vs. molecular biology, computer science vs. information systems). Knowing how you function in a given lab environment requires some degree of self-knowledge as well as experience.
The following are some questions you may want to consider as you search for an advisor or try to make a decision to join a particular faculty member’s lab.
1. Has the faculty member previously mentored other graduate students? Previous mentoring experience can be helpful, although it is not absolutely necessary. Find out how many other students the faculty member has mentored. If possible, try to talk with them directly to get their opinion of the mentor, both individually and in terms of the lab progression under his/her tutelage. You can learn a lot from their firsthand view of the benefits, challenges and requirements of working in the lab. Attempt, as well, to discover the success rate of students who have already graduated from the group. How long did it take them to finish their research? Where are they employed? What career options were made available to them via this field?
Mentoring Style. Also be sure to ask about the faculty member’s mentoring style. Some mentors are very “hands on”; others are extremely “hands off.” Do you feel more comfortable with a “micromanager” who provides extensive supervision and regularly scheduled meetings, or do you prefer more autonomy in determining the direction of your work? Both styles have advantages and disadvantages, and only you know what balance will work best for you.
Support. In addition, find out if the faculty member has a reputation for helping his students gain visibility and recognition in their field. For example, does he make sure that his students attend conferences? Introduce students to other investigators? Promote beneficial collaborations such as co-authorship of journal articles? Is there funding available for travel? This type of support can be invaluable to your success.
Accessibility. A key question to ask during your conversations is how accessible the faculty member is to people working within the lab. If he or she is not frequently in the lab, what other resources are available? If, for example, you find yourself in a large lab with little access to the faculty member, are there research scientists or senior post-docs in the lab who can help you navigate through both the lab and the Ph.D. process, and with whom you can “talk science?” This is important, not only for your own growth as a scientist, but also to ensure that you are not left floundering should you experience problems with your project.
2. Where and how often has the faculty member been published? An excellent way to get a feel for a mentor is to review all the papers published by his or her lab over the previous three to five years. People who love science and the research they are conducting tend to make sure that their work is well documented in respected journals. Ask for copies of all such publications. Numerous invited articles and presentations to professional societies suggest that a researcher’s work is well received. In addition, the number of publications and the quality of the journals in which they appear can be a good measure of science in a faculty member’s lab.
3. Where is the faculty member in his/her career path? How established a faculty member is in his field may also affect his availability for mentoring, priorities, and the types of questions and projects that his lab is exploring. While extensive experience is always attractive, keep in mind that younger or less famous faculty can make excellent advisors, as well, and may also have more time to spend with you. In the absence of substantial grant funding or a lengthy publication list, someone with an active and growing research program has a great deal to offer. Note that it is possible to benefit from access to both: you can choose an advisor with more time than experience, but also include renowned researchers in your department on your research committee (with your advisor’s consent). In that capacity, you can still seek their advice, and their letters of recommendation and “connections” can greatly benefit you down the road. That said it is still better to have an advisor who has tenure than one who does not.
4. How well funded is the faculty member? While there are always a variety of funding options to pursue in graduate school, working for/with a faculty member who is adequately funded will make your graduate life much easier … from ensuring that you’ll have sufficient funds to purchase resources and supplies for your experiments— to being able to travel to and register for conferences. It’s also noteworthy to add that poorly funded faculty members often don’t remain long at their appointed institution.
Grant support from major research organizations such as the National Science Foundation indicates that other scientists judge this person to have made significant contributions. Obtaining grant support is a highly competitive process, one that is much more difficult to achieve than earning space in a major journal. A history of grant support from major foundations is, therefore, very impressive. Most impressive is a researcher who holds a special position where a university or a foundation has granted the person a lifetime of research support. Keep in mind, however, that there are potential problems in working with renowned researchers. Faculty whose research costs require a lot of grant support are often limited in the amount of attention they can devote to you because they are busy writing grant proposals, justifying grants, administering grants, and supervising post-doctoral students.
5. Do the size and dynamics of the faculty member’s lab suit your style and project? Some students prefer larger labs; others prefer smaller labs. The size of the lab may reflect and/or determine how much access you will have to the faculty member, how well funded the lab is, and the extent of resources and expertise that will be readily available to you. A large lab, for example, may be very well funded and also employ many post-docs and research techs who may have skills and experience that are useful to your research project. On the other hand, the faculty member may also have a number of other responsibilities and not have much time for mentoring students.
Lab Staff/Experience. Is the lab predominantly staffed by graduate students, post-docs, technicians, females/males, Caucasians, minority students, international students, or is there a mix? The people who constitute the lab help to determine the lab environment and the extent of technical, career and life experience on which you can draw. Does everyone in the lab spend over 40 hours in the lab? Do they socialize with each other outside of the lab? Are they excited/engaged in their work? It is important to feel enthusiastic about your research experience if you are to be successful in your post-graduate work. Nearly every graduate student encounters some difficulties with a project. If you don’t care deeply about what you are doing, it can be very difficult to sustain yourself during those challenging periods.
Environment. Is the environment collaborative, competitive, or neither? Are the people in the lab aggressive or easy to get along with? People will come and go during your tenure in the lab, but if the faculty member has a track record for recruiting professional people who do quality work, that pattern tends to repeat itself.
My advisor meets with the students in our lab once a week. Most of the students give a quick “check in” about what is going on with their research. This quick check in does not allow me to get my research questions answered because the culture dictates that you check in and then shut up. If you talk too long, students start looking at their watches as if you are taking up their valuable time. How can I ask to meet with my advisor on a one-on-one without appearing too needy and less independent?
This is a common question especially for graduate students who are involved in large laboratory settings. The fear of appearing too needy and less independent is real especially for women and minorities who carry an extra burden of trying to fit into a competitive male dominated environment.
My recommendation is that you schedule a meeting with your advisor. The focus of that meeting should not be a complaint about the value weekly meetings but a meeting about the progress of your research. You should treat meetings with your advisor like a formal business meeting complete with an agenda. Come to the meeting prepared with a list of questions you need answered in order to move your research forward. Your agenda and list of questions let’s your advisor know that you value his or her time as well as your own time. Be prepared to answer questions about what alternative solutions you have already tried. Professors like to see that you have thought about some possible solutions, before they have to throw you a life vest.
In that initial meeting you might ask about scheduling future meetings and about what is the best way to get your future questions answered in a timely manner. He or she might suggest that you ask some of your more senior lab partners for help or he/she might suggest other alternatives to the weekly meetings.
Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D.
About the Author: As a single mother, professor Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D., completed three masters’ degrees and a PhD. Her motto is a Good Thesis/Dissertation is a Done Thesis/Dissertation. She is the creator of a new innovative interactive resource tool on CD—TADA! Thesis and Dissertation Accomplished. To learn more and sign up for her FREE tips and teleclasses, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Privacy is our policy. TADA™ Finishline does not give out or sell our subscribers’ names or e-mail addresses.