Selecting the Right PhD Advisor for You

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Selecting the Right PhD Advisor for You


Molly McDonough, Materials Science and Engineering PhD Student, Penn State University

Deciding to pursue a PhD is a big deal—you’re committing to one place for the next five to seven years of your life.

Even more important than deciding where to attend is deciding who will be your thesis advisor, the principal investigator (PI). This may be the only time in your career that you get to choose your boss, and since it’s a long-term commitment and your advisor will have a direct impact on when you graduate and your career path, you definitely want one who’s a good fit for you.

I’ve learned from personal experience that taking these steps can help you identify a good match.

1. Know yourself first

Consider what kind of research interests you. Experimental, theoretical, computational, or a mix of all three? What subfields do you find fascinating? What kind of career do you want? What research can help you get there?

2. Connect with potential advisors and their students

Once you narrow down your research interests, look for professors working in that area. Aim to identify three to five for each program you’re considering applying to. Get a sense of their research and lab culture. Google their names and see what comes up. Then email those who could be a good match. Ask if they have space for new graduate students in the current application cycle and, if so, whether they can meet with you. If they aren’t local, consider a Zoom call.

During the meeting, ask about their research, funding status, management style, travel schedule (some PIs are rarely on campus), group members, and work expectations. Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • What kind of funding do you have for new graduate students?
  • What are your research and publishing expectations?
  • Do group members typically work evenings and weekends?
  • What is your management style?
  • How long does it take for your students to graduate? Where do they go?

Next, find out what it’s really like working for those on your shortlist. Most PIs have a group website that lists current students and alum—reach out to them. Most will be happy to share their experience with you.

3. Consider your options

By now you’ve been accepted. Congratulations! It’s time to seriously weigh your options for advisors. Consider programs with at least two PIs you’d like to work with—there are no guarantees. Also, consider the prestige of the advisors and the pros and cons of working in a prestigious lab. Here are some:


  • Your group may publish frequently in high-impact journals.
  • You may get a leg up in the academic job market.
  • You may get impactful letters of recommendation for future positions.


  • You may face unreasonable expectations.
  • You may be in a highly competitive environment.
  • The lab may be run by postdocs or graduate students if the advisor frequently travels.

4. Go get your PhD!

Hopefully you’ll have an excellent advisor, but you don’t have to suffer if things aren’t working. Talk to your advisor if you think it might help, and reach out to your graduate student coordinator, mentors, or trusted classmates about unresolved issues. If you can’t find a solution, you’re not stuck. You can always change advisors, departments, and even programs. This is your PhD, and you deserve to be happy with your research topic and advisor.


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