I would like to thank Cecilia Sui and Taylor Damann for an insightful conversation that led to this post.
In undergrad, I changed advisors three or four times. Mostly, that was a consequence of changing majors three or four times (history to political science back to history…or something like that). I met with my advisor at the start of the semester to ensure I was completing all of the school’s requirements, but otherwise, I did not see them or think much about them. And surely, they didn’t often think of me. Which was totally fine. Undergraduate advisors are there to make sure you don’t fall through the cracks, and so, choosing an undergraduate advisor is kind of an afterthought.1
Choosing a graduate advisor is totally different. This person will be of critical importance to you throughout graduate school and beyond. Your graduate advisor will help you chart your path, choose your dissertation topic, and get a job. They will provide feedback on your work, review your job market materials, introduce you to other scholars in the field, and advise you even after you’ve left your department behind. This person will be a lifelong mentor and give you more attention than basically all other faculty you encounter combined.
Some qualities to consider
So how do you go about choosing a graduate school advisor?
Subfield/subject matter expertise
When early-stage graduate students think about choosing an advisor, subject matter overlap is, understandably, the first (and sometimes only) thing they consider. In fact, some students use this heuristic to choose an advisor before they’ve even sent in an application. This is a reasonable selection criterion. After all, who better to help you write an outstanding dissertation on Topic X other than the person who wrote the book on X?
Probably no one. A subfield expert will be able to give specific and detailed feedback when it comes to your dissertation. They will be able to identify potentially interesting research questions and provide good references. But an advisor is so much more than a friendly reviewer with a command of the relevant literature. Subject matter overlap alone is generally not sufficient to sustain a lifelong relationship.
Here are five other factors you ought to consider.
Timeliness and follow-through
What good is feedback from the leading scholar in your subfield if it comes three weeks late? Not much.
Advisors are busy people. The good ones especially so. They are writing books and journal publications, traveling and presenting their work, teaching classes, advising other students. But a good advisor also makes time for you. They read your work in a timely manner and provide detailed feedback. They show up to meetings. They give actionable advice.
If your advisor never reads your work, never replies to your emails, and never shows up for appointments, it doesn’t matter if they’re the smartest polymath on planet earth.
Working style and personality
Some advisors might proactively schedule meetings every week. Others may wait for you to ask. Some expect you to be in your office. Others never come to campus. Some will sit down and brainstorm with you. Others may only respond to work in writing. Different people have different working styles and different expectations. Use this to your advantage.
Unlike a traditional boss, an advisor is not simply assigned to you. Pick someone whose working style gels with and strengthens yours. If you can’t stand someone constantly checking in on you, don’t pick and advisor who does.
Whether it’s an idea for a paper, a rough draft, or job market materials, you have to be comfortable showing your advisor early stage work. It can feel vulnerable to share these materials, so make sure you choose someone who you can trust and who you can accept feedback from.
You don’t want to put yourself in a position where you’re avoiding your advisor because you’re nervous about how they might react to your work. In that case, you’ll never get the feedback you need.
A good advisor gives honest feedback. They do not smile and say “everything is great,” because, in all likelihood, your work is not that great. You’re just starting out in academia, and the quickest way to improve is to get clear feedback and actionable advice—not a pat on the head.
An important note: honesty and civility are two different things. Honest feedback should always be given in a polite, supportive, and constructive manner. If your advisor is rude or dismissive, you should immediately consider a change.
In Political Science there is a norm that advisors are tenured professors. And for good reason. Your advisor is going to be the one working hardest on your behalf—especially when you go on the market. They will review your application materials, make personal calls, and connect you with other junior and senior scholars. The person most equipped to take these actions is someone who 1) has a lot of connections with senior faculty sitting on hiring committees and 2) has reviewed a lot of applications as part of a hiring committee. While junior scholars may seem more approachable, they have less experience in the field, and thus, are less equipped to fulfill either qualification.
How do I know which advisors have these qualities?
Choosing an advisor based on subject matter overlap is easy. You look them up on the department website and skim their bio and CV. You don’t even have to meet them. However, there is no guarantee that this strategy will produce a good match.
What I am suggesting instead is more difficult and time consuming. You can’t know if a potential advisor is rude or honest or a micro-manager without putting in some effort and doing your research. And so, you cannot realistically make an informed decision on an advisor before graduate school or even during your first semester.
Take this decision seriously and treat it like a job interview:
- Interview them. In my department, new students are asked to meet with every faculty member in their subfield before the end of the first year. These meetings can be short—30 minutes. But the act of sitting down and talking to potential advisors about your interests and their research can help you quickly discover their personality and whether they’re a good fit.
- Get their references. A good advisor has advisees (red flag if they do not). And those advisees will probably give you an accurate impression of the advisor. They can fill you in on questions you may not want to ask the advisor directly about expectations, working style, or timeliness.
- Test them. If you’ve narrowed down your decisions, do a demo project with each of the finalists. Ask them if they have any projects you could work on or if there’s something the two of you could start together. Or, if you want to do something a little less intensive, email them and ask for feedback on a seminar paper and see what happens.
I would also be remiss if I did not say that your advisor—while your chief advocate—is just one person in your network. You should develop relationships with other senior and junior faculty, both within and outside of your subfield. Never hesitate to ask far and wide for feedback, and get it from anyone willing to invest time in you and your work.
An advisor is many things. A mentor, a critic, a friend, a sounding board, a lifelong advocate. Choosing one is not a decision to be taken lightly. So think beyond subject matter expertise. Think, instead, about who you want to be getting dinner with when they retire in forty years.
Unless, perhaps, you’re working on a senior or honors thesis…although in that case, you may have a separate thesis advisor who is not your general academic advisor. ↩