Questions to ask when Choosing a Graduate or Postdoctoral Advisor

Content Developed by Dr Dominik Konkolewicz

While each case is unique, and there are complex and individual nuances about each pair of students and advisors, we hope the resources below will help you ask the right questions and set you up with a successful mentoring relationship. Although the advice below cannot guarantee a successful and exciting graduate/post-doctoral experience for each case, asking the right questions can lead to better outcomes and alignment between the mentor and mentee’s expectations.

Why is the choice of graduate and post doctoral advisor so important?

One of the most significant choices you will make in your career is the choice of graduate advisor or postdoctoral mentor.

The research you do as a graduate student and a post doc will be significant in determining the trajectory or flavor of your career. For instance, if you do graduate work on polymer synthesis and functionalization, and a post doc in spectroscopy of polymers, you will be far more likely to be successful at managing a team on design of new monomers, or degradable polymers than say a person who did graduate work on solar photovoltaics. Both are important areas, just that they have a different focus.

Beyond the technical skills you will gain through graduate and postdoctoral work, which will be important in shaping the direction of your career, the networking you do in your graduate and postdoctoral work will be significant in determining your future career. By joining your advisor’s lab you will be a part of their network, and you will get to know people who visit them, and people will get to know your work through them.

Find an advisor whose research is fascinating and appealing to you

We cant say it enough. The most important thing is to find an advisor with projects that are inspiring or important to you. Most likely you will be applying to multiple universities for graduate or post-doc work, but make sure that any place you apply to has advisors with projects that are relevant to you. Don’t just focus on the profile or ranking of the university, since you are unlikely to be successful if you are not motivated by the projects, no matter the ranking of the institution. Make sure you look over the webpage of any potential advisors. This will give you a flavor of the types of research they do and you can determine if it aligns well with your interests.

Research has ups and downs, days with breakthroughs and many more with failures. Working on a project you are motivated by will get you through those difficult days when everything fails, because you want to come back tomorrow and try something else to get to the final goal.

Ask about Career trajectory of Recent Graduates

One exceptionally exciting thing about STEM research, especially polymer science and engineering is that there are opportunities in numerous areas, ranging from basic academic research to applied materials development. Some labs research areas are better aligned with one or another type of career trajectory. So if you want to have a career developing mechanically tough materials in the industrial sector, pick an advisor with students who end up in industrial jobs, working in the field of mechanics of polymers or related fields. Alternatively if you are looking for basic polymer research careers, then a very applied polymer science group is likely to be a poor fit. Ask the potential advisor about where their students move to after they graduate!

Established vs New Labs

There are lots of different group environments. One question is do you join an established lab or a new lab that is just starting? The definition of established vs new lab is not clear cut, and we don’t want to get into specific cases here. However, you can look on resources like google scholar and established labs will likely have prolific publication records. Having said that, those groups can be quite large, meaning lots of independence, but possibly less one-on-one time with the advisor. New and recently started labs are fantastic, often brimming with new ideas and directions. That level of enthusiasm and discovery is huge. Also keep in mind, each established lab was once a new lab! Joining a lab right as they make huge breakthroughs is going to be huge for you!

Also factor in the size of the group when making your decision on which lab to commit to. Large groups can offer diverse experience, skills and opinions, but you are likely to get more one-on-one time with your advisor in a smaller group. Although many established labs are larger than newer labs, there are examples of large labs that are relatively new or small established groups.

Group Dynamics– As important as the Science

One thing that you should keep in mind, is the lab respectful to all members including students/post-docs? Is it an environment you would feel comfortable working in? You are going to gain an enormous number of skills through your graduate work/post-doc, but you are also going to give countless hours to the lab. You deserve to be treated with respect!

One other question you should be asking potential advisors and their lab members, is how do the different team members interact. Some groups tend to be more focused, with individuals having firmer projects, while other groups have more interactions and collaborative projects between team members.

Make sure you ask existing lab members how they experience the lab environment. What does the group look like at a day to day level? Is this the type of environment you want to work in?  Just because it works for other students, does not necessarily mean it is a good fit for you.

No one model is better than the other, but ask yourself how would I like to work in this environment?

You are going to be working in this environment for years, so you need to be happy there.

Managing Conflicts

Although we do not wish it on anybody, unfortunately conflicts do happen, especially when we think about how many hours per month you are in the lab. Do your best to manage conflicts through respectful and honest discussions. If your and your advisor’s expectations don’t align, discuss it. If you are struggling with a fellow group member, discuss what is happening and the reason for the disagreement with them first, and then if not senior lab members or the advisor or a senior member of the department. We all work better when we work well together.