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Picking an Advisor: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Picking an Advisor: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

After picking a graduate program, the next big decision for a first-year graduate student is picking an advisor. One of the factors to consider in this decision is the academic age of the Professor and his or her lab. Do you want to work for the energetic Assistant Professor that joined the department last year, or go for the seasoned Full Professor with a twenty year history of training young scientists? Here I’ll break down the general pro’s and con’s of these labs, and perhaps give you some new things to think about in the process.

The new Assistant Professor

The Good: A young Professor is almost certainly going to have a small lab, and in the first couple of years he or she is probably going to actually be in the lab, working beside you. They will be heavily invested in your success, since he or she is unlikely to be successful themselves if you flounder or fail. The amount of personal attention will likely be very high, and when snags are encountered, they will be tackled head-on, possibly by the Professor themselves. In addition, an Assistant Professor still has a strong sense of ‘lab-time’, the amount of time it actually takes to accomplish a particular experiment, keeping expectations reasonable. Since the Professor has likely spent several years laying out the foreseeable path of his or her research, the research goals and milestones are well defined. The research topic is going to be ‘hot’, since hiring committees aren’t likely to hire someone proposing to start their career on a well-worn path, and the Professor will probably be energetic, which can lend a sense of energy and excitement to the lab, making it a place you want to be even when your experiments aren’t going well.

The Bad: The young Professor likely came to where he or she is – the manager of a laboratory – without any formal or structured training in management. You are one of their first employees, and they are about to develop a management style by trial and error. Lucky you. To make matters worse, developing that management style probably isn’t their top priority. In addition, all that personal attention and investment in your success can add up to a lot of pressure, real or only perceived. Suddenly a grant deadline looms, and that assay you’ve been developing has to be working in two weeks. Many who work in these labs really like their advisor, and can start to feel responsible for the success (ie – tenure) of their mentor, which can be heavy responsibility to bear as a graduate student. In addition, the lab may go through some periods where funding is very tight. During these times, experiments may have to be designed around the price of the reagents (even more so than they normally are) and you may be required to serve as a teaching assistant beyond the normal requirements for your program, both of which could unnecessarily lengthen your graduate career.

The Ugly: Some young Professors only management experience is supervising undergraduates or technicians, and they might attempt to supervise graduate students the same way – with very little room for independence or independent growth. Some Assistant Professors move the paper train along by taking their students data and writing the papers themselves. In most career paths scientific communication is (arguably) even more important than the ability to design and execute a well controlled experiment, so while this practice is faster, it does a great disservice to the student. Some young Professors can be so distracted by their other duties, dismissive of the value of management, or just so naturally ungifted at management, that the lab becomes a completely dysfunctional environment before anything is done about it.

What to look for: You have little, if any, history to draw on here, so your information likely has to be first hand. When you rotated in the lab, did the Professor have a clear plan, or did he or she seem to be making it up as they went along? The later could be a concern. Did they maintain a professional distance in their interactions with you, or did they try to be ‘one of the guys’? It takes a very special person to effectively lead while still being ‘one of the guys’, and it is unlikely that a managerially-inexperienced Professor is going to pull it off. Before you join a lab, you can sit down with a prospective mentor and ask what their philosophy is on graduate training and manuscript preparation. If they don’t seem to have clear ideas or plans that they can articulate on the spot, then you should be concerned. Working in a young lab can be exciting and rewarding, but make sure you are being trained, and aren’t simply a tool that the Assistant Professor uses to gain tenure.

The seasoned Full Professor

The Good: This Professor has already passed through the chaos of establishing the lab and his or her own career. They probably have a larger lab with lots of equipment, senior graduate students, and postdocs – in other words, resources outside of themselves. Many have two or more grants, lending a certain level of economic security in the lab. They have a system for training graduate students and running a laboratory that has evolved over time to create a functional environment. They have publishing experience and a reputation that both contribute to getting manuscripts published in respected journals. If they are highly regarded in their field, then some of that reputation will rub off onto you and perhaps make finding a postdoc a little easier. What you are doing isn’t necessarily the key to the future of the lab, so you are more likely to be given the time and independence to develop the project and yourself. All in all, a very stable environment.

The Bad: While there are certainly many exceptions, sometimes all that stability comes at the expense of energy and excitement in the lab. The lab may be working on something that was cutting-edge 20 years ago when the lab was started, but may not be now. You may be working in a system that the field seems to have left behind, or working out the details of a process that was discovered one postdoc and two graduate students ago. These projects may be relatively safe, but unlikely to turn heads at a meeting and may not be motivating enough for intellectual adrenaline junkies. The independence you have can also have a dark side – time can start to stretch out while the Professor patiently waits for you to solve one technical hurdle after another. It isn’t uncommon for the lab management to have evolved via lowest common denominator (simply banning anything that somebody once complained about), leaving the lab heavily regimented with lab rules and a less than energetic and creative environment.

The Ugly: While senior Professors have a management style, it isn’t always a good one. Some tire of managing all the group dynamics in a lab, and start viewing their trainees as children whose behavior is simply an obstacle to research. Consequently, a very patronizing style develops that may actually hinder the development of professional behavior of the trainees. You can get lost in the crowd, not only of the current crop of lab members, but with those from the past. One Professor that I knew routinely called one of his graduate students by the wrong name – which he usually ‘apologized’ for by saying “Oh! Well, yes of course I know your name – you just remind me of him.” Some seem to give up any active role in mentoring at all, and view the tenure of the graduate student in his or her lab as simply an opportunity for the student to prove themselves, not unlike teaching someone to swim by tossing them into a lake and merely observing the results.

What to look for: The best way to determine if you will be happy in a well established lab is simply to talk to the current lab members. Ask how happy they are, and how they would characterize their interactions with their advisor. Ask about the general traits of people who have been successful and happy in the lab, as well as those who struggled. Then take an honest look at yourself and ask which group you’re most similar to. If there is a history of dysfunction in the lab and the current lab members aren’t happy, walk away. There is a real “But I’m special” syndrome that many first year graduate students contract that causes them to ignore history and join dysfunctional labs. In the end, it invariably turns out that they weren’t as special as they thought, and have all the same problems as the people before them did.

What I’ve painted here are the two opposite ends of the spectrum, and Associate Professors can fall anywhere in between. Some have the positives of both groups with few of the negatives, and sadly some seem to have only the negatives of both groups. In addition, all labs and Professors are different, so don’t make any assumptions based on a Professor’s academic age. (I’ve know Assistant Professors with two large grants working next door to a Full Professor struggling to get one grant funded; Assistant Professors that are natural leaders while some Full Professors that ‘mentor’ with curse-laden diatribes; et cetera, et cetera.) Gather all the information you can from your rotations keeping in mind some of the issues I’ve discussed above, then determine which environment fits you best.

If there are any other aspects of a new versus established Professor that a student should consider before joining their lab, please add them in the comments!


  1. Mike Morgan on July 21, 2010 at 7:19 pm

    I’m in a somewhat fortunate position here in the UK. Many universities now offer sandwhich (intercalated) year as a part of their bachelors degree. In my particular instance this allowed me to gain some invaluable experience in an active research environment in a field I’ve now developed a very deep interest in (due to my work experience year). This provides an ideal opportunity for undergraduates to find out about many of the problems you’ve noted above in your article. As a result I have managed to gain a PhD position within the same group I did my placement year.

    I think it is worth pointing out (and I do whenever I get the opportunity) to undergraduates that getting research experience can also help them to network with potential future PI’s, and most importantly get to know what sort of superviser they will be.

  2. Gough Au on July 21, 2010 at 9:13 am


    Having fall-back projects would be ideal and enable students to explore a lot more of their scientific interest before they embark on a post doc career. Many senior PI’s have commented recently that young students are very focussed on key areas to generate results and don’t explore their field while they have the opportunity, particularly in wet science where time is critical.

    Currently, students can sign up for multiple PhD projects but it’s generally not done due to workload. If they are signing up at different institutions there is a conflict of interest issue as well. I know of one student who has done this but they would not have been taken on the PhD program at our University if they had known before hand. Multiple projects within a single lab could work however and certainly provide more security for a lot of students here. At the moment, students on my programme just throw the dice and hope it works out.

  3. Pranay Dogra on July 20, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    Thanks Jode,

    This is an excellent article, just “What the doctor ordered for me” . I would be joining graduate school soon and had this doubt about the old or the new.. Now I can make an informed and better choice when I ultimately select my PhD adviser..

    Thanks again!!

  4. Suzanne Kennedy on July 20, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    Hi Micronaut,
    Sometimes a student will have two or even three projects in case one doesn’t work out. Or they will have one that is easier and will definitely lead to publications and one that is higher risk but more exciting and bigger pay-off. Do you think in the UK, students could try something like this?

  5. Xiang-Ru Ma on July 20, 2010 at 9:31 am

    how I wish I’ve read this before I first entered grad school

  6. Gough Au on July 20, 2010 at 8:59 am

    No problem. Good article. The US system sounds much better with a panel organizing/managing the research. The UK system leaves PI’s with a level of omnipotence and unaccountability to students. Many PhD students in my own program have had very bad problems with PI’s selling them good projects that turn out to be terrible, and when it all goes wrong they walk away leaving the student with nothing. PI’s can also leave the University and demand the student moves with them or lose their project. A panel within the University would ensure any mistreatment of students was dealt with appropriately, and provide some security to students investing 3 or 4 years of their life in a project.

  7. Jode Plank on July 19, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    micronaut – My apologies for the confusion. Since I’ve only been in the American system and hadn’t encountered confusion or misunderstandings when chatting with my international colleagues, I wasn’t aware of the alternate system.

  8. Christopher Dieni on July 19, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    Great article! I’ve actually been very fortunate and seen various types of professors over the various stages of my education- including one not mentioned here.

    When I was an undergraduate, I worked with a brand spanking new, fresh out of the wrapping, new assistant professor. Literally. I worked with him over a summer term and the first day I arrived, everything in the lab was in boxes. I was his first-ever student (regardless of undergrad, grad, or postdoc) and literally set up his lab, got his protocols organized, and started the first experiments up and running.

    As a grad student, I worked with a seasoned full prof. He’s one of Canada’s finest and is well-known throughout the world. I was part of a great team of grad students and undergraduates.

    As a postdoc, I worked with something not mentioned in this article: an Emeritus Professor. VERY seasoned, very well known, very well funded. Big lab- no undergrads, no grads, only postdocs. 15 of us when I first arrived. It was a dynamic that I had never even heard of before, and turned out to be an invaluable learning experience.

    So, with these three “phases” I’ve seen a lot of the pros and cons that Jode has described here. I’ve tried to pick out what works and what doesn’t work, and hopefully- if I’m ever fortunate to be a prof and run my own lab- I’ll be able to use these accumulated learning experiences to my advantage.

    Again, amazing article!

  9. Suzanne Kennedy on July 19, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    Hi Micronaut,
    In the US, an advisor and the PhD supervisor are the same (the PI). We have a committee that helps to advise and guide the project and determines when you are complete, but they usually do not play a major role, unless you specifically request their help.

  10. Gough Au on July 19, 2010 at 10:10 am

    is this article about picking a PhD supervisor or an adviser? The project will be linked with the supervisor, or “PI” so you wont have a choice if you’re set on that particular project. Picking a project can be determined therefore by the potential supervisor(s). In terms of an adviser you need to pick somebody who is not connected with your supervisor and can provide an unbiased opinion on the progress of your work. I’ve not managed to fine one myself but I would have benefited greatly from an impartial adviser to cast an eye over the general strategy and progress of my project. In fact, I would advise any new post graduate student to make it their first priority to chose an adviser alongside your supervisor.

    In terms of supervision, you should consider a professor will often be a good person to provide strategic direction for your project but it can be years since they’ve been in the lab and their technical support can destroy your PhD. On the other hand, a post doc researcher for a supervisor will give you with the real bread and butter techniques and “on the job” training you need to get through the grind. Unfortunately they may not have the resources or the connections that a professor does which could limit the potential impact of your work or the start you want for your career. Personally, I’d go for a post doc level supervisor as those at the chalk face will help you put a solid, defensible thesis together and give you the skills you need to carve out a career for yourself.

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