Here, read this guide to choosing a grad school and advisor

This essay was originally posted at Lost in Transcription:

So, you’ve come here because you read the Lost in Transcription Guide to Whether or Not YOU Should go to Graduate School, and, at the end of having read said guide, you (YOU) concluded that yes, you (YOU) would give grad school a whirl.

Now you’re looking down the barrel of grad school applications and trying to decide where to apply.

Or maybe you’re looking down the much happier barrel of multiple grad school acceptances and trying to decide where to go.

Well, luckily for you, Lost in Transcription is here for you with

The Lost in Transcription Guide to Where YOU Should go to Graduate School

Okay, let’s start with the disclaimer. This guide will be most directly relevant to people looking at grad schools in the US and in the sciences. However, many of the considerations will be at least partly applicable more broadly.

Consideration 1: Reputation

In academia, just as in a pre-Joan-Jett Main-Street America, reputation matters. But what reputation, exactly? Is it your university, your department, or your advisor? And how much does it matter?

Look, in an ideal world, your prospects after grad school would be determined by the quality of your work. And yes, that is the most important thing. But the fact is, when you apply for a postdoc or a job, the people who are going to be reading your CV and your lovingly crafted research description are mind-bogglingly busy. They are also all flagrant (if sometimes closeted) Bayesians. They are going to look at where you went to school and who your advisor was, and they are going to construct a mental picture of you.

Yes, it sucks. And it is a bunch of crap. But the reality is that most academics, in addition to being overly busy, are ridiculously status conscious. So, while this shouldn’t be your primary consideration, it should probably factor in. As unfair as people’s biases and preconceptions (sometimes) are, you want to do what you can to be on the right side of them.

Of course, what I am calling “reputation” here is going to be at least reasonably well correlated with “quality,” which is a perfectly legitimate consideration. If you go to a higher quality program, you will tend to have smarter colleagues, better classes, and a broader and more interesting set of advisors and projects to chose among. Unless you have a seriously unhealthy big-fish-in-small-pond fetish, you’re going to want to be surrounded by the highest-quality people and resources you can find. You’ll be more challenged to push yourself, and you’ll learn more.

But let’s get back to the question of which aspect of quality/reputation you should focus on. For undergraduates, the most important consideration is the reputation of the school as a whole. For postdocs, it is probably the reputation of the individual advisor. As a graduate student, both of those matter, but the most important reputation by far is that of the department.

If you go to a top-notch department at a university that is otherwise known primarily for its binge drinking, you’re golden. We have a collective societal ranking of the prestige of various universities that is fairly well reflected in things like the US News and World Reports rankings. Most people have a sense (rightly or wrongly) that Stanford outranks Lehigh, and that Michigan outranks UNLV when it comes to academics. But in the world of grad school and beyond, those rankings, the ones we all know, really don’t matter that much.

Every field will have its own ranking of schools and departments, and it is this ranking that will shape your experience and job prospects. For example, it is fairly common for large state universities to have a few “flagship” departments where they focus a lot of resources. These departments are every bit as good as the best departments at the most prestigious universities.

That is, don’t go to Harvard just because it’s Harvard. (And don’t go to Yale just because you didn’t get into Harvard — Snap!) The prestigious universities are prestigious not because their good departments are better than the good departments elsewhere. They are prestigious because they have a larger number of good departments. But in grad school, you’re really going to be in one department. If you’re a molecular biologist, the presence of Nobel Memorial Prize winning economists on campus is not going to impact you much.

The only place where having gone to a prestigious school (as opposed to a quality department) is going to help you is in name dropping at cocktail parties. However, there is a much easier way to impress people at cocktail parties: don’t be the jackass who is always telling everyone where they went to school.

You can easily find rankings of various departments online, and this is worth doing, just to get a sense of the lay of the land. You can also look up the faculty in the corresponding department at a few different colleges and universities. See where they went to grad school. If you have a strong sense of where you want to wind up, focus on that sort of place. For example, if you think that you would really like to teach at a small liberal-arts college, look up faculty at small liberal-arts colleges.

Most importantly, ask around. Make appointments with professors and ask them for a list of good departments. Ask your TAs. If you know someone who knows someone, ask them to put you in touch. I know it might feel like you are imposing on their time, but you’re really not. Academics love ranking things, and they love love love passing judgement. Asking an academic to rank the departments in their field is like asking a normal person to judge a wet t-shirt contest. So don’t be shy.

The final thing, though, is to make sure you don’t take the details of those rankings too seriously. At the end of your research, you want to have a sense of what schools have quality departments, but there will be no legitimate sense in which the number three department on your list is objectively and quantifiably better than the number six department. Your goal should be to assemble an unordered list of “good” places. Then, if you are accepted into more than one of them, let these other considerations guide you.

Consideration 2: Your Advisor

This is important. Graduate school, and academia more generally, is built on this weird feudal system that more closely resembles the medieval system of guilds than anything else. Your advisor will hold tremendous sway over your life during graduate school, and over your career trajectory when you finish.

Why are we covering this here, though? We’re supposed to be picking a school not an advisor.

Well, depending on your field, as well as on the school you wind up at, the two choices might go together. At some places, you may be accepted by the department, and then have the opportunity to get to know various faculty members before committing to one. In some cases, though, you will be accepted directly to work with a specific advisor, or at least provisionally, so that it would require a bit of effort to change.

Either way, it’s an important part of the decision process.

The game here is not to find the best possible advisor. The game here is primarily one of “Do No Harm.” There are a lot of advisors who are going to be good enough. And the fact is, you are not going to spend nearly as much time with your advisor as you probably think you are.

There are a few advisorial archetypes that you particularly want to avoid. Note that these are not mutually exclusive.

1. The Narcissist
This is a remarkably common personality type among academics. In many fields, particularly in the sciences, the “productivity” of senior researchers is actually measured by the productivity of the people who are working under them. In a lot of experimental sciences, in particular, faculty members write papers and grants and manage lab personnel, but may not have been engaged in hands-on research themselves for years.

That means that your advisor’s success is tied up with your success. Fundamentally, this is a good thing, as you are both pulling in the same direction. At some point, though, your interests and your advisor’s interests will begin to diverge. It is at this point that, if your advisor is a narcissist, you are totally screwed.

If your career is not prestigious enough, the narcissistic advisor will be pissed off because you have embarrassed them. If you are successful, well, at some point, you are going to become one of your advisor’s competitors. Either way, they are going to turn on you.

The key to rooting these people out is to ask them about their former students. Ideally, you want the advisor who comes off like the proud grandma or grandpa when they’re talking about their fledged advisees. Do they seem to talk about them as if they were people? Or do they seem more like statistics and trophies?

2. The Best Friend
Now, on its surface, this seems like someone you should want as an advisor, right? It is also the sort of advisor that everyone thinks they want to be. The problem is, the vast majority of us need an advisor who is willing to hold our feet to the fire a little bit. Grad school will probably be the most unstructured thing you have done in your life. Most people struggle a bit with learning the tricks of motivation, focus, and self control that are required to make good academic progress. While you’re trying to learn these things, you don’t want an advisor who is all, “What? You’re spending this week at home in your pajamas watching TV? Just like last week? That’s cool. See you whenever.”

You need an advisor who has enough authority and emotional distance from their students that they can say, “You know what, you need to do this over. At this point, it’s just not good enough.” Yes, it totally sucks to have someone tell you that, especially when that person is your boss. But the thing that sucks even more is when no one ever tells you that, and you wind up being completely unemployable because you never learned how to do rigorous, high-quality work.

3. The Slave Driver
This is the flip side of the best friend, of course. You really do want an advisor who will push you, but not one who will be controlling and abusive. One thing to look for is a distinction between quality and quantity.

Some groups have a culture where students and postdocs feel they need to be seen in the lab. They will work in the lab on Saturday in the hopes that their advisor comes in and sees how industrious they are being. You hear some professors talking about wanting to be able to look at their lab at 10 pm on a Friday and see all the lights on. If students are trying to hide their hobbies from their advisor, out of a fear that having other interests will make them look lazy, this is a bad advisor.

4. The Pre-Retiree
Some time in their careers, most academics reach a point where they’re just, like, “Fuck it.” For some people this happens the day after they get tenure. (NB: These people are in the minority, but are well on their way to ruining tenure for everyone else.) For most people, it happens much later though, and within a few years they go emeritus. The trick is not going to work with someone who is still in that window between intellectual retirement and actual retirement.

This is especially dangerous in the case of famous, well respected senior researchers. The idea of working with a living legend can be incredibly attractive. But if they have lost interest in their research, then they are going to be shutting down their group, if they have not already begun to do so. They won’t be taking more students, so your life will get lonelier and lonelier. Also, there’s this dangerous path where you wind up abandoning your own research and editing their memoirs.

5. The Letch
This, I think, is much less of a problem than it used to be, but it is certainly still there. Most universities now have sufficient protections in place that if you have trouble with sexual harassment, you can probably find a fair amount of support. Also, I think that our culture has evolved enough that most of your fellow students will also tend to be supportive. But none of that is going to make a harassment situation not horrible. And if the harassment is from your advisor? Well, best case scenario, you probably wind up switching advisors, and maybe losing a year or two. Basically, avoid at all costs.

How to avoid this, though. Basically, you want to rely on the rumor mill. That doesn’t mean that you have to take every rumor about every professor at face value. But you should absolutely not fall for the old, “You shouldn’t spread rumors. Nothing was ever proven. It’s so unfair to sully his name.” bullshit.

Talk to grad students who have been around the department for a few years. Talk especially to students in other groups. Ideally, talk to them at some sort of social event where there is alcohol involved. Grad students actually love to gossip.

Of course, it is possible that there will be a story out there, and that a particular faculty member will have been accused of something, but will, in fact, be blameless. If you hear a specific story, ask around some more. If there’s another side, someone will probably give it to you. If no one in the department offers any sort of defense of the professor, that does not necessarily mean they’re guilty. But it does mean that no one likes them enough to defend them, which is a data point in its own right.

If there is more than one story, run.

And before you start quoting some “innocent until proven guilty” nonsense, recall that choosing to work with a different PhD advisor is not the same thing as putting someone in prison. You have every right to err on the side of caution.

So those are a few of the advisors you don’t want to work with, but what are the positive traits that you can look for in an advisor?

1. Are their students happy?
And by this, I don’t mean rolling-into-the-lab-at-noon-still-drunk happy. I mean, are they optimistic and enthusiastic about their projects? The ideal lab will have people who are eagerly working long hours, not because they are scared of their advisor, but because they can’t wait to get the results of their experiments. Part of this is going to be driven by the mix of students and postdocs who happen to be there, but part of it will be a reflection of the advisor’s managerial style. If you can find a lab like this, jump at the chance to join it.

2. Do you connect?
It is not as simple as there being good advisors and bad advisors. A lot of it is about a match between you and them. Are you snarky and sarcastic? Don’t go with a super-earnest advisor, no matter how much everyone talks about how nice they are. Are you thin-skinned? Don’t go with the gruff professor, even if they do have a heart of gold.

3. Do they have a plan?
A good thing to ask a potential advisor is how they imagine your grad career being structured. The details of their answer are not necessarily that important. There are many paths to a successful PhD. However, if they don’t have any ideas, that should raise a red flag.

4. Where do their students go?
With the exception of very new faculty, you can look at a potential advisor’s track record. What have their students gone on to do? Remember, there is no one right answer here. If all of their students go on to be professors at major research universities, that’s great — so long as you are sure that you want to go on to be a professor at a major research university. It might also mean that if you decide you want to go into science writing, you’re going to catch hell.

In my view, the ideal track record would have a majority of people who have gone on to successful, traditional academic careers, but also people who have gone on to do other things. Perhaps most important, though, is how the advisor talks about their non-traditional students. Do they seem ashamed and embarrassed? If so, that’s maybe a problem. Even if you think you want a traditional career right now, who knows what you’ll think in five years. Make sure you find an advisor who will support whatever path you choose to follow.

Consideration 3: Your Project

This seems really important, right? I mean, what you actually work on for your PhD has got to be one of the most critical considerations, right?


Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

This might actually be the least important consideration. Sure, you can factor it in if you want, but you should rank it somewhere below the quality of the linoleum in the hallways.

Remember that thing that people say about undergraduate education, that what you’re really doing is “learning how to learn”? Well, grad school is sort of like that. The most important thing you do in grad school is learn how to be a researcher.

When you break it down, doing independent research actually takes a lot of different skills. You learn how to read up on a topic, teaching yourself what the state of the art is. You learn how to identify an interesting open question. You learn how to pose that question (or some aspect of that question) in a way that you can answer it in a reasonable amount of time. You learn to actually do the research. You learn how to write about your research clearly. You learn how to speak about it clearly. You learn how to respond to challenges and criticisms, both in person and in writing. You learn how to identify when a project is a dead end. You learn how to salvage what you can and apply it to the next question.

The thing is, of all of those skills, “doing the research” is the only one that is specific to your particular project. Everything else in the list will transfer over, even if you completely change fields.

Let’s say grad school takes an average of about six years. It is typically the case that 90% of the stuff that goes into your thesis will be things you do in the last year and a half. That’s because most of what you’re learning is how to be a researcher. Once you get that down, you do a little research, write it up, and graduate.

So what happens if you finish your PhD and decide that you want to work on something different? Well, you change. In fact, lots and lots of people make big shifts in what they work on when they do a postdoc. Obviously, if you switch fields, you’re going to have to spend some time learning the new one. The thing is, while it took you four years to learn what you did about your field in grad school, once you’ve finished, you’ll be able to accomplish the same thing in a new field in like six months. In part, you will have developed an intuition for how to zero in on the relevant information in the literature. In part, you will have learned how to stop yourself from playing Halo when you’re supposed to be reading papers.

The point is this: Maybe you have strong opinions about what you want to research. That’s cool. But the fact is, you know almost nothing. Most likely, this thing you want to research is one of a very small number of things you’ve been exposed to.

Maybe you had a positive experience working in a insect biomechanics lab for a semester. Or maybe you had a really hot TA in a your evolution class, and he/she works on insect biomechanics. And now you think that insect biomechanics is the most important topic in biology, and that working on it is your life’s calling.

I want to offer you an alternative explanation. What you have actually learned about yourself is that you can get excited about academic research. In all likelihood, you would have had a similar response to any number of topics. So keep your mind open. Find a program that makes you happy, and one day you will be the hot TA.

If, after finishing your PhD in yeast senescence, you still think that insect biomechanics is the bees’ knees (see what I did there?), go do a postdoc in it. You might even find that some of the things you learned about yeast give you an interesting new perspective on the insect biomechanics problem.

Consideration 4: Location

Unless you completely ignore consideration number 2, you are not going to spend all of your time working in your advisor’s salt mines. Don’t get me wrong. Graduate school tends to be pretty all-consuming. And there are some people who seem perfectly happy with spending basically all of their time at the lab (or the library, or the steam room, or whatever).

Personally, though, I’m a fan of a more process-based perspective. Remember, grad school is not just five (or seven, or nine) years on your way to a stressful career, it is five years of your life. If you have outside interests that you love, I think it would be a mistake not to take those into consideration.

If you love skiing, and there is a good program in your field in Colorado or Utah, that is a perfectly legitimate consideration. If you can be happy on the weekends, it will help to carry you though the dark time in your fourth year when you realize that your entire thesis has been built on a faulty assumption. (Yes, this willhappen. Just think of it as the Kobayashi Maru part of your PhD training.)

The thing that I would discourage you from, though, is a vague sense of regional loyalty. You know, like where you’ve always lived on the West Coast, so you’re only going to apply to West Coast schools.

All you’re really doing here is limiting your own experience. Also, if you are aiming towards an academic career, you’re probably going to have to learn to be flexible in where you’re willing to live (unless you wind upgoing Ronin). The academic job market is a national one. In fact, it is increasingly becoming an international one. For many people, the possibility of traveling to and living in a variety of places is one of the appeals of the academic lifestyle. If that is really not attractive to you, think carefully before you commit to this path.

Of course, maybe you have other constraints and considerations that have you anchored to a particular location (like maybe an ailing parent). Obviously, in this case, you should go wherever works, and put all your effort into choosing a good advisor.

Consideration 5: Your Peers

This is easily, in my opinion, the most important factor to consider. Yes, you’re going to be doing your own independent research. Yes, you’re going to be taking classes from the faculty. Yes, you’re going to receive at least some mentorship from your advisor. But whatever you learn in those contexts is going to pale in comparison to what you learn from other graduate students and postdocs.

There are the more senior members of your group, who are actually going to teach you things. If they are nice, and smart, and engaged, you are going to learn a lot more.

There are the other students who come in with your cohort. You are going to spend hundreds and hundreds of hours with these people. You are going to take exams with them. You are going to practice giving talks in front of each other. You are going to drink beer with them (wine if you’re in the humanities). You’re going to play poker with them. It’s reasonably likely that you’re going to wind up getting married to one of them. It’s even more likely that some of them are going to get embarrassingly drunk at your wedding.

Thirty years from now, these are the people you’re going to be connected to via whatever replaces the thing that replaces Facebook.

Of course, you won’t be able to pick exactly who your peers are. But a lot of programs have some sort of interview visits or recruiting visits. If you have this sort of opportunity, take it. And don’t just look at the program and the faculty. Also look at the other interviewees/recruits. Are there people here with whom you could imagine forging lifelong friendships? If you can’t imagine it, maybe this won’t be the place for you.


So, young Gradawan, imbued you now have been with all the wisdom required to choose the right graduate program for YOU! Be sure to write in to let me know how it works out!

3 thoughts on “Here, read this guide to choosing a grad school and advisor

  1. Great advice as a incoming grad student I really needed to hear all of this and actually wished I found this before choosing schools too!!

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