Choosing an advisor is a critical decision you will face in graduate school. It is normal to sometimes feel overwhelmed by this choice. Still, there are many specific things you can do to make the process less stressful. Every student is different, but here is some “generic advice” culled from talking with students through thirty years of finding advisors. Click on the buttons below for some further words of wisdom from other professors, and experiences of PhD students.
- You can change your mind: Remember that choosing an advisor is not a final, immutable decision. Sometimes it is important to get going with someone, even if your interests later change and you wind up working more closely with someone else.
- You are an individual: Every advisor has their own style, just like every student does. How much independence do you want/need? How much support do you want/need? Ask other students about their meetings with their advisors: do they meet every week? Do they have to find their own problems? Are they comfortable discussing a personal topic? Have they been offered financial support? Can they work on whatever they want or are they expected to focus on specific things suggested by their advisor? Different students may have different experiences with the same advisor, but it is good to hear as many perspectives as possible on the professors you are considering.
- Do not compare yourself to others: Although it is wise to get working with someone as soon as possible, some students, especially those who have taken less math in college or who came to math late, will need more time to get through the QR process. This is fine. Do not panic just because peers have found an advisor and you haven’t.
- Choose the person, not the topic: Most students do better choosing a person (within some broad area, for example, algebra or PDEs, say) whose style of mathematical communication they like/understand/relate to/admire/respect on a personal level. Students who are already committed to a specific specialized topic may struggle to find an advisor willing to advise them on that subject, or may later decide that they don’t get along personally with the one faculty member in that specialty.
- Talk to professors: Coming to office hours, attending seminar and colloquium dinners, tea, other social events, are great ways to get to know potential mentors on a personal and mathematical level. Ask them what their students are working on. Ask them about their favorite theorem, or their favorite colloquium talk. Snoop around professor’s web pages, arxiv postings, math genealogy listing—all these can provide possible topics of conversation. Successful mathematicians have many mentors and contacts—not every conversation has to be a high stakes advisor-courting one. When you are ready, ask them explicitly whether they are willing to serve as your thesis advisor.
- Take courses with homework: Alpha and beta courses provide ready-made reasons to talk regularly to faculty. Usually, 500 and 600 level courses are more effective at getting students going in research than the enticing 700 level courses where the goal might be “exposure” to a highly specialized area rather than training in techniques.
- Talk to more people: The Chair of the Doctoral Committee or AIM Director are officially charged with helping you find an advisor. Ask for advice! Ask about specific people, styles, former students, etc. Ask other students, ask alumni, ask post-docs, ask your undergraduate mentors or current professors about how they made this choice or what they know about who might be a good advisor for you.
- Don’t believe everything you hear: Students often get discouraged because “they heard” that Professor X is not taking any more students, or that Professor Y expects his prospective PhD students to complete every exercise in Textbook Z before being approached to serve as a mentor. Find out for yourself! Often, the story is quite different from what “you heard.”
- Go to junior colloquium: Here you will see what professors are doing, and also meet students who will have insight/advice/opinions about different advisors. Do not restrict yourself only to those meetings you think are in an area of interest! Go to all. Be open-minded. Be broad. Strong mathematicians are familiar with what is happening outside their own narrow expertise. You might find an advisor in an area you didn’t expect, or some friendly additional mentors.
- Make a habit to attend and give talks: Check the seminar listing every week. Regularly attend colloquia. Become part of a student seminar community or create your own. Attend a regular seminar in your area of interest, and try to learn something from each talk, even if you barely follow the first five minutes. It will get easier. It takes babies 2 years or so to learn the language of their parents; it’s likely about the same for students to learn the language of a seminar. Socialize with participants. Take advantage of subsidized dinners!
- Pick someone sooner rather than later: It is never a waste of time to get going on learning some good math. It is a great idea to read some material suggested by a professor (or tentative advisor) in the summer, ideally even meeting with them regularly. Even realizing that this subject or person is not right for you is progress toward finding your advisor.
- Just ask: If you have been talking to a professor and you are not sure whether your relationship is a formal advising relationship: just ask them. The question of whether they are willing and able to be your advisor is yours to ask, not theirs.
Words of Wisdom from Professors
Schedule of Upcoming and Past Thesis Defenses