Finding professors to serve as your grad advisor

Dear (prospective) Graduate Student,

Now that you’ve decided to go to grad school, where should you apply and how do you find a Professor that you want to work with? This task can seem daunting  – out of all of the universities out there, how do you find a lab that you want to join?  There are so many ways to go about this that I don’t intend to share an exhaustive list, but rather a few places to start for those of you who are feeling overwhelmed. The following tips are in no particular order:

  • Check academic job boards for Professors advertising open positions in your area of interest. If a Professor is advertising a graduate position, then that means they are actively accepting new students and they have a grant with a budget for student support. You’ll be expected to research something relating to the objectives of the grant as they’ve outlined in the ad and there will likely be steep competition for this position since it’s a widely-circulated advertisement.
  • Search online for universities with well-known graduate programs or departments in your area of interest. Visit the department or program’s website and review a list of Professors. There are usually links to their department page or personal website with descriptions of research interests and sometimes bio’s of current students. Really detailed Professor’s sites may have instructions for prospective grad students interested in applying to study in the lab.
  • Take note of prominent authors publishing in your field of interest. Their home institution should be listed and you can visit their department’s webpage for more information on graduate programs and the researcher’s personal page for more information on what they study and whether they have instructions for prospective students. (Similarly, take note of prominent universities and departments that commonly show up for authors publishing in your field of interest. Seek out those departments online.)
  • Ask Professors that you look up to where they studied and whether they know of programs you should consider. When I reflected on who I most respected in my immediate scientific sphere, I realized that many of them came from one program in particular so I immediately began looking into applying to that program for my PhD.
  • Talk with friends or colleagues in graduate school about how they found their graduate program. You can never have too much advice in this area and I find the more I talk with people about how they made their choice, the more insights I gain about making my own choices.
  • Attend a conference or symposium in your field (or even just download a copy of the program). These types of events are a goldmine of information, not only about what’s currently hot in your field but also where all of these researchers are coming from. Events typically have a mix of prominent Professors as well as up and coming graduate researchers. Take a look at what institutions these people are coming from and what they are studying. If a certain topic catches your eye, use the power of the internet to find more about that person, or that person’s mentor, and what graduate programs are available at their institution.
  • Social media may also be a powerful resource if you are already connected with group pages that relate to your field. On Facebook or LinkedIn you could likely post to a group page about your interest in pursuing a graduate degree and ask where people in this interest group went to school. Similarly, you may be able to tweet at a group on Twitter and get feedback from followers of the group too.

Keep in mind, identifying who you might want to work with is just the first step. After that, you’ll need to email these potential advisors and engage in a two-way interview to make a final decision!

Stay positive.

– R