Selection of a Faculty Advisor
The heart of each graduate program is the completion of a piece of original scientific research leading to a master’s thesis or Ph.D. dissertation.
Each student should discuss research interests and possible research projects with faculty members in his or her group as early as possible. The student and his or her faculty advisor will develop a research topic, and research will normally occupy a majority of the student’s time after the first year of residence.
Interdisciplinary projects are highly encouraged, as are research collaborations with faculty member or senior scientist outside UC Merced. However, the major professor must be a member of the student’s graduate group.
Students could be assigned an initial advisor when they first enroll; if not, select an advisor no later than the end of the second semester of study.
How do I decide?
Selecting an advisor requires you to make an honest assessment of your working style:
- What type of working environment maximizes your true potential?
- Do you need someone to micro-manage every aspect of your thesis or dissertation project?
- Do you flourish when you are given a task and allowed to work at your own pace?
- Do you excel when you are allowed to figure things out by yourself?
- Are you willing to ask for help when you need it?
To successfully complete your thesis or dissertation, you need an advisor who complements your working style.
Here are seven tips for selecting your advisor:
1. Interview Potential Advisors
Remember, you and your advisor should be enthusiastic about your thesis or dissertation topic. When selecting a topic, you have to find a faculty member who is an expert on that topic and is willing to work with you. Before you interview potential advisors, consider writing a three-page draft of a proposal to discuss with your candidates. Be sure to ask if they plan sabbaticals in the next two years.
Selecting the right advisor is critical to your success in graduate school. Your advisor can propel or hinder your academic progress. As a graduate student, you have very little power in your academic department. Hence, you need to select an advisor who can be an advocate for you. To be your best advocate, your advisor should have tenure and the respect of his peers. As chair of your committee, peer respect will be invaluable when your advisor has to supervise the other committee members and facilitate your dissertation defense.
2. Interview Fellow Students/Advisees
Although a faculty member might be respected in his or her discipline, your work style and personality will not always mesh with theirs.
Your peers are your greatest resource; advanced graduate students are often willing to share information about what it is like to work for or with a particular faculty member. As a possible advisee, you need inside information on:
- Availability and accessibility of the advisor;
- Timeliness and quality of the feedback;
- His/her expectations: Are they realistic?
- The working atmosphere in the lab;
- Management style, micro or macro;
- Facilitation skills during defense hearings; and
- Average time his/her advisees take to finish
3. Be Professional With Advisor/Committee Members
The quality of the advisee/advisor relationship varies and is based on the commitment level and personalities of your advisor and yourself. Both of you share responsibility for making this relationship work successfully. You should be as professional with your advisor/committee members as possible:
- Let your advisor/committee member know that you value his or her time.
- Get to your scheduled meetings on time.
- Don’t sweat it if your advisor/committee member is late.
- Be prepared with an agenda for your regularly scheduled meetings – prepare questions ahead of time.
- Call and cancel if you will not be able to make your scheduled meeting.
- Send a follow-up email confirming any items and resolutions that were discussed during the meeting.
- Prepare a cover sheet with an outline of your document indicating the type of feedback you are looking for.
- Don’t get frustrated if they ask for another copy of the latest draft of your document even if you haven’t made any changes since you gave it to them last week.
- Always bring a hard copy of the chapter to be discussed with you.
- Takes notes at all meetings; you won’t remember everything once you leave the office.
4. Don’t Assume, Ask
The relationship between you, your advisor and committee members varies by the amount of direction, personal interaction and psychological support given and accepted. In addition, the type of criticism given and the frequency of interaction will depend on the type of relationship you and your advisor have established. It is quite possible that each committee member could have different expectations of you.
It is your responsibility to find out what level of participation each member of the committee is willing to make. Ask each committee member what he or she needs to see in your dissertation for them to sign off on it. That way, you can make sure to address each of their concerns, with your advisor's help.
5. Understand Your Advisor and Committee Members
The best academic advisor does not have the time to hold your hand throughout your academic career. The academic advisor’s time is limited because, after all, he or she is a professor and a researcher first and is getting paid to teach courses, conduct research, advise graduate students, supervise graduate research, write books or journal articles, and serve on campus- and university-wide committees.
Moreover, your advisor went through the same process without much assistance from his/her advisor when he/she attended graduate school. Therefore, the tradition of completing a thesis or dissertation is a lonely process and an unsympathetic advisor does not want to cheat you out of having the same experience he/she suffered through years ago.
Your academic advisor’s main commitment is to supervise your research project. He/she will not be your friend, therapist, financial aid counselor or marital advisor.
6. Choose Your Battles Wisely, Handle Conflicts and Disagreements
Your advisor is the coordinator of your thesis or dissertation project. While the advisor's major role is to share his or her expertise with you to help you develop your ideas, your advisor is also supposed to advocate on your behalf. Conflicting advice from your committee members should be brought to your advisor's attention.
Resolving conflicts among committee members is part of your advisor's responsibilities. After you resolve the issue with your advisor, ask if she/he is going to be responsible for communicating the solution to the other committee members. If she/he suggests that you handle that issue, it might be prudent to send your advisor an email confirming the agreed-upon resolution. You might consider copying the other committee members with this confirmation.
If you and your advisor disagree, you might consider writing a more persuasive argument addressing concerns. Arguing with your advisor is not time well spent. If you spent the time choosing a well-qualified expert, an active supporter and head cheerleader, these disagreements should be minor and short-lived. You need him/her — your advisor will be writing recommendations for you well after you have left the university.
7. Seek Feedback and Advice From Your Advisor and Committee Members
If you aren't getting timely written or oral feedback from your advisor, there are many things you can do to.
First, though, remember that your advisor and committee members are busy people. You must make the best use of their time.
First, if you cannot get feedback from your advisor, try another committee member to keep things moving along.
Second, when you submit your thesis or dissertation chapters for review, you should provide some guidance on how you want your advisor/committee member to read your document. Sometimes you might just be looking for answers as to whether your methodology or reasoning is logical and going in the right direction. If you want this type of feedback, your advisor might not have to read as closely as he might think if you do not provide any instructions. Provide an outline of your chapter so your advisor can get a good overview of what the chapter is about and where it fits into your thesis or dissertation. Without instructions, your advisor is likely to place your document in a pile of must-read items. Leave the grammar and editing to an editor; your advisor will give the final grammar edits on your final draft.
Changing your faculty advisor
- If your faculty advisor moves to a different university;
- Your research interests have changed;
- Your relationship has become strained;