Advice for Choosing an Advisor
Choosing an advisor
It's the middle of winter and you're through an entire quarter and are settled in to the next one. Up to now you've (rightfully so) been exclusively focused on cramming material into your head as fast as possible while trying to maintain a semblance of a personal life. But progressively, and more intensely, that pesky question keeps surfacing: What do I want to study?
Let's face it, a large proportion of QERM students don't know what they want to study when they enter the program. In fact that is a key selling point of QERM for a lot of people who don't know exactly which direction they want to go in their studies. Quantitative ecology is a broad (inter-)discipline that covers an extraordinary breadth of potential topics, all of which probably sound interesting. But pressure is building and it's time to initiate serious deliberations about a future direction and start the process of choosing an advisor. This page is designed to guide first year QERM students through this critical process by leveraging the varying philosophies and experiences of the QERM community at large.
Hopefully the newer students will empathize with the emotional frame of reference (and toll) involved with this decision and can provide relevant advice to navigate the particulars of the process. Conversely, the older students and alumni will have had time to reflect on their choices and offer advice on the big picture.
There seem to be two broad strategies pursued by QERMies:
- Choose a topic. Whether it is specific (e.g. HIV) or broad (e.g. trees) it is possible to filter out everyone who is not researching a particular topic of interest, or at least involved with it. In this strategy the actual advisor is a secondary concern as long as the desired topic is satisfied. You want to study x and this person is an expert in x and is willing (and excited) to accept you as a student.
- Choose an advisor. With this strategy the interaction between you and your advisor is of primary importance, while the particular topic is secondary. This person will play a pivotal role in your education and having a solid, dependable relationship with them matters much more than a thesis topic. Your intuition overwhelmingly signals you that this is someone you can work intimately with for years to come.
In addition to these oversimplified strategies, there are a couple of technical details that are worth touching on.
- Timing. Start meeting people in Winter quarter, or before. By the early part of Spring quarter you should probably have met with a good chunk of potential advisors, and by mid to late Spring quarter be ready to make a decision. Remember that at the end of May your funding runs out, and you have to take the qualifying exam, so it is highly desirable to have your advisor chosen by then.
- Approach. Typically you will browse a professor's website and skim a few of their recent papers to get a feel for their current research interests. If it seems interesting, propose a casual meeting. If they're already QERM faculty or are familiar with the program you won't have any work to do. If not, just introduce yourself and give a quick synopsis of QERM's requirements and what the program is about. In the end there are no obligations from either side beyond chatting about potential intersections of research interests.
- New faculty. If you're interested in bringing a new faculty member into QERM there is some paperwork that needs to be done. None of the responsibility for this falls on the student though. Joanne is, as always, an excellent resource and takes care of the process by coordinating with the potential new and existing faculty.
- Funding. The advisor selection process may depend highly on the current economic forces at play, which could limit potential choices. The two options available for funding are (1) research assistant (RA) and (2) teacher's assistant (TA). Both require the same number of hours (in theory 20 hr/wk), pay about the same, and have identical benefits. The difference is what you spend your time doing. Some students choose to TA because they want experience teaching, while some do out of necessity when an RA position is not available. Depending on the department the person may expect you to bring your own funding. Traditionally, as far as I know, this is not reasonable for a QERM student because you should be focusing on your core coursework, not writing proposals your first year. Sometimes an advisor won't be able to fund you over the summer, and you will need to find an alternative source. Make sure you discuss this early on in case alternative plans need to made.
QERM Student Seminar
As of the 2010/2011 academic year the QERM seminar was moved to Winter quarter to give the first year students a chance to see what other QERM students are studying. Feel free to check out past presentations for ideas.
(Do we have a wiki page for this already? If not let's start one so students can browse old talks)
List of potential new advisors
Naturally the existing QERM faculty is a great place to start, but there are many quantitative-minded faculty from a diversity of departments here on campus that would make wonderful advisors. This section lists some of the people that we feel are specifically worth checking out. By no means should you restrict your search to this list, and please feel free to add to it!
This section is for individual students to provide whatever advice they wish. If posting publicly restricts your freedom of expression, your thoughts can easily be posted anonymously. (Or if you just are too lazy to sign up for an account). Just contact me (Cole) or anyone else who seems moderately responsible.
Including your cohort year and degree seem like they'd be useful.
- Cole. 2010 Cohort. I don't have much to say yet, since I haven't even started with my advisor, but we needed a first example! I did find it helpful to chat with the students who came in to make Soup and get their individual perspective.
- Kevin. 2005 Cohort. My advice is to talk to a number of different faculty members, and then follow up with some of their students. The relationship you have with your advisor will help define your grad school experience, so it's worth figuring out if you'll be able to work well with that person. Find out how easily their students can get in touch with them, and the quality of the advice their students feel they've gotten from their advisor (both for their specific research topic, and for what they want to do after school).
- Gregor, 2009 Cohort: Of everyone I've seen, I think Rachel did the best job looking for an advisor. She found someone to meet with pretty much every week starting about halfway through fall quarter. Talking to a number of people will help you figure out what you want in an advisor. I'd also recommend sitting in on lab meetings for the groups that have them.
- Christine, 2011 Cohort: Most of my cohort didn't know exactly what we wanted to work on, which leaves you to talk to advisors you feel compatible with and hope they have a funded project they will drop in your lap. This has luckily been very successful for many QERM students in the past, since our quantitative skills make us attractive students. However, funding is becoming more and more scarce due to recent budget cuts. If I were to do first year over again this year, I would apply for fellowships. There are several that are only available for first or second year graduate students (i.e. the NSF GRFP). Having your own funding gives you a lot more flexibility on who you can work with. Rather than restating Kevin's advice, I will just emphasize again the importance of choosing an advisor based on who you think you can work well with.
- Kiva, 2011 Cohort: Another factor to consider is the atmosphere within the lab. These are the people you will be interacting the most with on a daily basis. Do the students get along? Do they ask each other questions and bounce ideas around, or come in and put headphones on and power through the day? Are you going to be the go-to person for help on anything stats-y, or is everyone pretty quantitative? The right answer depends on what you are looking for. I would also echo the chorus of people mentioning the importance of choosing an adviser you feel good about working with. Go with your gut on that one.