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The fact is that the quality of your postgraduate research experience will depend, in large part, upon your relationship with your academic advisor. But how do you find and get in contact with a graduate advisor? This blog will describe what a healthy postgraduate advising relationship may involve in STEM and in the humanities.
STEM: advising in the lab
STEM students, if you wrote an honors thesis or worked in a professor’s lab as an undergraduate, then you’ve already had a preview of postgraduate advising. For degree programs that involve lab work, academic advisors tend to lead teams of graduate students (sometimes alongside post-docs and undergraduates) in their own ongoing projects. So, when you’re identifying potential advisors, look for a professor with good leadership skills, a friendly (or at least humane) lab environment, publications that you admire, and an exciting ongoing or imminent project.
Can you think of a particular professor with an inspiring publication record in your subfield? If so, consider emailing that professor or a graduate student in their lab, to find out if they are currently accepting students into their lab. As I recommended in our previous post, Shopping for Programs, you should also consider asking your undergraduate advisor if they have anyone in mind whose research may suit your interests—and if they are willing to put you in contact with any of their colleagues.
STEM: advising for theoretical or independent projects
For students in STEM fields that do not involve lab research, your relationship with your advisor may look a lot like your colleagues’ advising arrangements in the humanities. Students in the humanities and working on theoretical STEM projects tend to have more freedom in selecting their dissertation topic, and thus a greater degree of flexibility in choosing their advisor. You’ll still want to identify a faculty member with similar research interests, but ultimately, their expertise will not define the scope of your project.
When you’re looking for potential advisors, look at a wide variety of professors’ CVs and faculty pages instead of concentrating only on individuals whose work you are already familiar with. Challenge yourself to read a paper or attend a talk by anyone who you think might have an interesting perspective to add to your project. Ideally, your advisor will direct your attention to areas of your field (and adjacent fields) that you have yet to consider, encouraging exploration as well as focus in your advising meetings and future publications.
In the humanities in particular, a potential advisor’s habits of communication with students are just as important as their area of expertise and publication record. You might want to begin your search for advisors by talking with a handful of undergraduate advisors whose communication styles you found conducive to respect and productivity. Ask them if they can think of any professors who have similar styles of advising. Your undergraduate professors may offer to connect you with a potential advisor of two, but I wouldn’t recommend emailing every professor on your list. Instead, close read their presence online and consider reaching out to a graduate student in their department (perhaps an alumnus of your undergraduate university) to learn more about that professor’s style of advising.
Contacting potential advisors
Ultimately, whether you are in STEM or the humanities, if you do decide to contact a potential advisor, then do so in a concise, professional email. Remember to introduce yourself (first and last name) in the first line of your email, naming your undergraduate university and your reason for emailing. You should also feel free to express your enthusiasm about some particular facet of their research or an individual publication. When you sign off, don’t forget to thank them for their time. If you don’t hear back from an advisor, don’t worry! You might still end up working with them, and the process of writing to one or two potential advisors will help you develop some prose for your personal statement.