I have an awesome adviser

06Oct07

I have an awesome adviser.

The one bit of wisdom I’ve picked up in my first year of research is that a good adviser shapes and nurture one’s early academic career. A really good advisor will do far more for one’s development and professional growth than the name on one’s degree or the size of one’s fellowship. Think of rosy imagery of gardners taking care of saplings … or pre-teens with tamagotchis.

Grad school is an apprenticeship, and one’s adviser is passing down a set of skills (a way of approaching the subject) to you as his/her successor.


Image reprinted with permission from “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham.

The `right’ adviser for a graduate student is like the `right’ pair of running shoes for a marathoner. You probably know what style you want, but it may take some effort to find just the right fit. This fit is often very personal — what’s right for others may not be right for you. And finding the right fit is really important if you want everything to work out for the long haul.

Passion for science

I think the most important thing that my advisor is able to share is his contagious passion for what he does. Last month, for example, I started getting a bit anxious that my work was coming along too slowly — he very calmly reminded me that we’re doing science and that our responsibility is to do things thoroughly and correctly above everything else. He then added that if our result is wrong after all this, that he’d blame me personally. It’s also nice when you and your adviser share a similar sense of humour.

Shared excitement about the work one is doing with an adviser brings out the best in a student — extra hours at the office, enthusiasm, and initiative. This, in turn, usually generates more excitement from one’s adviser. (Some conservation law appears to be violated?) In the same vein, however, the lack of excitement from one’s advisor may become a nutritional deficiency in one’s growth as a student.

Communication

A second important mentoring skill is communication, especially in establishing expectations of how the mentor-mentee relationship is meant to work. The expectations for me, for example, include workinghard and taking the initiative to ask questions when I’m confused. In exchange, my adviser takes it upon himself to guide me through projects that are appropriate and interesting to me. He has made it clear that he is always open to assist with any physics matters — educational (background knowledge), practical (guidance on the next step of a project), or professional (advice about the next stage of one’s career). At the same time, he’s made it clear that my personal life outside of physics is my business alone. This latter stipulation comes from his experience with advising undergraduates. And while I wouldn’t have thought it appropriate to turn to one’s academic advisor for personal problems anyway, I appreciate that he delineates the boundaries of his role as a mentor.

None of these things are unique to only my advising experience. But it’s important to note how advisers differ and how these differences must be communicated. Some advisers are more hands-on than others, some organize their research group differently, and some just have their own quirks; these can lead to different experiences for their students and hence need to be agreed between the student and the adviser.


Good communication can sometimes begin with how to properly address your adviser. Image reprinted with permission from “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham.

Good communication, of course, also includes the literal act of exchanging ideas. This could be strongly influenced by the backgrouds of the student and adviser: their native languages, their educational background (did you do your degree in maths or physics?), and even their cultural background. While it’s usually no problem to bridge language barriers when `speaking physics,’ the way an adviser offers constructive criticism and the way a student understands such criticism can lead to significant misunderstandings.

In this respect I’ve been fortunate to have an adviser who uses the carrot rather than the stick (at least as far as I’m concerned). My adviser is very good at saying the right things to excite me about our project (even during the tedious stages). When I’m checking a `boring’ calculation, he’ll casually note that it would be a `huge discovery’ if I find a disagreement with the accepted literature. (The chances of this are of course tiny, but the thought does motivational wonders.) If I’m progressing a bit more slowly than he’d like, he knows how to offer help in a constructive way that I understand to mean, “You seem to be having trouble, what’s going on?” And when he thinks I need to focus on the `big picture’ of the project, he suggests that I give a talk at a local workshop so that I can codify my understanding, if only ultimately for my own good.

Early in our collaboration, my adviser told me that his best MSc student was able to publish x papers during his degree. He then said that if things go well and I can make good progress, he expects our collaboration can produce y (y>x) papers. I can’t speak for anyone else, but that sure got me working hard right off the bat.

It’s especially important to note that successful communication is just as much the responsibility of the student as it is of the adviser. If you want your adviser to motivate with the carrot rather than the stick, it’s your responsibility to express which methods are carrot-like and which aren’t. If your adviser isn’t enough of a psychic to clairvoyantly sense where you have trouble with the project, then it’s up to you to point out where you’re confused. If your advisor has a different set of assumptions regarding your working relationship, then you should bring those up before they inflate into bigger problems down the line. Make it easy for your adviser to be an awesome adviser, let them know how they’re being judged.

When they say good scientists know how to communicate, that doesn’t just apply to talking about science.


Image reprinted with permission from “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham.

The rest: the little things

Like a good basketball player, a good adviser `does the little things’ that often go unnoticed but make a big difference.

A good adviser…

  • Sets an example. While it isn’t strictly necessary, I suppose, a really good adviser is someone who is a role model. Often this spills outside of just science and includes things like balancing work and play (or work and family).
  • Teaches good habits. More than just teaching science, a good adviser teaches the art of doing science. This may include tips on writing grants, setting up the proper environment to do work (“sit outside with a glass of wine and calculate”), giving good talks (“always leave out something simple, that way you’ll know what your first question will be”), or even just establishing a good work ethic (my adviser openly wonders why there aren’t more students in their offices on Saturday mornings).
  • Knows when to cut you some slack. As much as we (as students) try to reach the standards that our advisers set, this is often a work-in-progress for most of our graduate careers. A good adviser will recognize when a bit of rest is the right thing to keep you going. After a few sleepless nights of checking/rewriting code, my adviser decided to have me take an afternoon off to recharge. “Go shopping, that’s what Americans do, right?”
  • Rewards you. While presenting research is part of the course of a project, allowing students to give such presentations (when they’re ready) and be the `spokesperson’ for the project is a rewarding experience that gives a sense of credit for work on the project. Grad school isn’t easy; you’ll be surprised how far a pat on the back and a `good job’ will go for our self-esteem.
  • Sometimes pre-emptively rewards you. (If that’s your style.) This goes along with knowing which `carrots ‘work for a student. Little things like going out for a meal can do a lot to help make a beginning graduate student feel comfortable with their mentor. Other `rewards,’ like travel support to attend conferences, are a gesture that a student is developing into a `proper’ researcher.
  • Helps you network. One great thing my advisor has done is introduce me to collaborators. There are several immediate benefits of this — having someone else to discuss the project with and receive guidance from — but most importantly it nurtures the development of my own network of collaborators.
  • Keeps you in the loop. A good adviser will include you in discussions on the direction of a project and the direction of own career as it relates to yours.
  • Keeps in touch. While one’s individual development may require more or less guidance from an adviser, a good adviser will always be in reasonable contact — even if that just means popping in once in a while to make sure things are going alright. (This actually makes a huge difference in making a student feel comfortable.)
  • Will wean you into your own scientist. The goal of grad school isn’t to become a good graduate student, it’s to become an independent researcher in your field. A good adviser will guide you not just to a PhD, but to becoming a researcher who can initiate his/her own projects.
  • [8 Oct, update] … But will hold your hand when you need it. A good adviser will engage you at your current level. Most young grad students aren’t ready to be postdocs. But they can quickly get to that level with some on-the-ground support and some positive encouragement. 
  • Sends you off into the world. Feynman’s secretary had a form letter to informing former students that unfortunately he was too busy to keep up with their progress and that he would be unable to provide letters of recommendation. That being said, I’m sure his students received fantastic physics mentoring. The point is that science mentoring is different from career mentoring. A good advisor will do both.
  • Gets along with you. While it’s important to keep one’s personal life and professional life separate, a good adviser will also be your friend. You should feel comfortable laughing with and speaking to your adviser. The sciences are social disciplines based on interaction; it helps to get along with people.

Finding an awesome adviser

I was rather fortunate to have been able to work with my adviser, but fortunte favours those who put in some effort. One’s early career is a succession of advisers, including undergraduate and graduate mentors. Often one’s current adviser can help suggest other faculty who would be helpful in the next phase of one’s career. There are two parts to this: (1) identifying faculty active in the field you are interested in, and (2) identifying faculty who have a good track record as advisers. While those familiar with a field can usually form a consensus on (1), evaluating (2) is the tricky part.

The best people to ask are former and current students. When I was looking at postgraduate schools (for my studies in the UK and my upcoming studies in the US), I sent out e-mails to graduate students of faculty I was interested in working with. A former student of my current adviser gave a very hearty endorsement. This is an especially important point for all of you undergraduates applying to grad schools this autumn. The reason why the departments put you in contact with current grad students is so that you can ask candid questions about their advisers!

The next step is to get in contact with a potential adviser. When visiting grad schools in the US in April ’06 (when most schools have open houses for admitted students), I ponied up the cash for a flight to Durham to meet my potential adviser face to face. I was also trying to get a feel for the department and city, but the point was that I wanted to see how I would get on doing a MSc in Durham with this particular adviser.

This meeting went well, and I followed it up in winter of last year by visiting Durham once again for their Annual Theory Christmas meeting. (This time it was easier since I was already in the UK.) We discussed potential projects and he gave me a few papers to read during my last term in Cambridge. We kept in e-mail contact during the spring, and I was able to `hit the ground running’ this summer regarding the project we’d selected.

Now the point of this anecdote isn’t that one has to fly across a continent and an ocean to find the right adviser, but that some searching is prudent. Most departments have some sort of `trial’ system to match up students and advisers. Experimental groups may have `rotations’ where first year students cycle between different labs. Theorists may hold `reading courses’ where small groups of potential students do a literature review on a research topic. Or studens and faculty may be pre-assigned by the admissions committee with the idea that they may `fine-tune’ their pairings as they get to know one another.

As some of you (including one of my flatmates, who apparently reads this blog) will be applying to PhD programmes in the very near future, keep in mind that finding the right advisor will have a big impact on your academic career.

Also — to my current adviser (who doesn’t read this blog): you’re awesome.



5 Responses to “I have an awesome adviser”

  1. Hey there —

    I note you are doing an MSc here in the UK. I was wondering if this was going to shortcut any of the faff that goes into a US Ph.D.? Or will they make you start from the beginning anyway?

    Thanks for the advice. I’ve really just started exploring my options (I’m bi-national, US/UK — funding bingo!).

  2. Hi Candace — well, my main motivation for coming to the UK was to do something `off the beaten path’ and to try to develop skills and collaborations that I wouldn’t have been able to in a US PhD. It wasn’t intended as a `shortcut’, though I do intend to avoid having to take introductory postgraduate courses again.

    And I do envy your citizenship — you’re right that this makes you eligible for all sorts of fellowships. (Not to mention access to CERN.)🙂

  3. 3 Mark

    Hi Flip, this is an awesome post. I wish I’d read it 5 years ago! Have you thought about suggesting your blog to the graduate school as a substitute for all those tedious “managing your supervisor” sessions that current students are encouraged/forced to attend?!

  4. 🙂 Thanks Mark — luckily as a MSc student I didn’t have to attend the “introduction to your PhD” sessions they held at 9am.


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