How to Pick a Graduate Advisor Reflection


I can’t emphasize enough the importance of a good advisor in achieving a PhD success. My unsorted reflections about picking a good advisor were well summarized in the article “How to Pick a Graduate Advisor” by Prof. Ben Barres in 2013. These are some key advice from the author and I believe in deeply.

Pick an Advisor Who Is a Good Scientist (50% importance)

  1. If your prospective advisor has not published a good research paper in good to top journals in over 5 years, this is a serious warning sign (what is the chance you will just happen to be the one student in that lab to publish?).
    • If the professor doesn’t attend top conferences frequently, this indicates he/she isn’t in the network of his/her research area. At least means he/she isn’t active. If he/she is invited as a keynote speaker in top conferences/seminars/workshops, he/she is a key researcher in the field with good reputation.
  2. Working with a young faculty member who is skilled in the latest techniques, still has a small lab, and therefore much time to mentor you, can often be an excellent choice.

Pick an Advisor Who Is Also a Good Mentor (50% importance)

  1. If only a very small percentage of alumni go on to have their own labs (whether in academia, industry, or government), this is a warning sign that little successful mentoring is happening.
    • It’s especially important for someone planning to purse a academic position after getting the PhD. Check how many alumni PhD becomes professors in universities or researchers in companies like Google brain.
  2. Talk with some of his or her current and previous trainees. Ask them whether this faculty member is a good mentor in terms of spending sufficient time with each student. Make sure to ask whether the students are generally happy. If not, this is a warning sign.
    • A professor can change. A good advisor as an assistant or associate professor doesn’t guarantee a good advisor as a professor.
  3. Do pick an important question but don’t pick the same topic that everyone else is working on.
    • Pick a research topic that is the expertise of your advisor. If a research is his/her major research, it’s much easier to get help from the advisor. At least, the research is your advisor’s research interest.