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Choosing a Graduate or Postdoc Advisor

Beginning a graduate degree or a postdoc may well be the most important choice of your science career, and at the time, you may feel that you lack the knowledge to choose well. So, before you settle on a particular professor to be your advisor, it is important to seek out all of the necessary data that you need to make a properly informed decision. Students and postdocs should approach this important decision in the same way that an investor evaluates a potential business risk. Why? The choice of advisor directly dictates the career possibilities that open to you as a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow.

Making the Big Decision

The most important criterion in selecting an advisor is the degree to which their students are sought after by other academics and people in industry. Most graduate students and postdocs have a narrow window of opportunity to succeed in landing an academic or industrial position. Understanding what doors might be open to you when joining a given advisor's group can be very reassuring, and a good way of guessing that is by investigating the career outcomes of past alumni from that group. For example, an advisor who has many fruitful contacts in industry will likely help students or former postdocs find industrial positions in the companies the advisor has links with. Advisors who do cutting-edge research in hot fields, have been awarded prizes, have published extensively, and sit on editorial boards of journals are more likely to spawn the next generation of faculty.

The subject of career development, which includes choosing advisors and mentors, is often left to one's own devices--and a good dose of luck--especially in academia. Unlike in the perceived "real world" of industry, there are far fewer career resources available for those who wish to pursue graduate education in the sciences. To help prospective students in this choice, Careerchem was created. In this online resource, graduate students will find a checklist of questions that they can ask potential advisors, whether they embark on careers in academia or industry. Although this Web site is directed at those who wish to pursue academic careers in chemistry, the suggested strategies for choosing advisors could be applicable to many areas of science.

A very effective way of charting a career is to learn by example. Reading the scientific biographies of great scientists in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society and Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States sheds light on patterns of success. One finds that successful scientists often emulated their advisors and were directly influenced by them in their career paths. The common thread is that they actively sought the assistance of someone of higher rank than them--and of influence--who promoted their scientific efforts and steered them in the path of other "good connections" that also helped to further their work and ideas. So, choosing advisors and recruiting professional allies is important because that is what successful mentors do for their protégés.

When shopping around for an advisor, the idea is to fit the type of advisor and stages of their career development with the personality type and goals of the prospective student or postdoctoral fellow. The latter requires that the prospective students do some soul searching by asking if they are independent, if they are followers or leaders, if they have active or passive personalities, and so on.

In the next sections, I outline the advantages and disadvantages for three main groups of faculty advisor: young, mid-career, and senior faculty members. The information I provide was acquired and assembled over the years through personal experience, anecdotal evidence, conversations with my peers, and a collection of more formal sources. An important point to recognize in your search for an advisor is that if any of the advantages I?ve listed in the mid-career or senior faculty boxes appear not to have materialized for a given faculty member, then it is fair to interpret this as a warning flag. The onus is on you to investigate the reasons for any inconsistencies or to seek another advisor.

Young Faculty Advisors

Young advisors are those with the job title Assistant Professor. They are typically close in age to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.


  • Enthusiastic and energetic, and tend to be more conscientious about their progress in research and teaching. Self-assessment is high on their agenda.

  • Still have strong links to their past Ph.D. and postdoctoral advisors. This is advantageous for their students to establish their first circle of professional connections, and for their personal mentoring as they learn to lecture and write grant proposals.

  • Tend to be Web savvy. They generally have good personal home pages that advertise their research and group members.

  • Are usually more active and pro-active in recruiting graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

  • More "hands-on" in setting up their laboratory. They often work alongside their students at the bench to accelerate their research efforts.

  • May be more sympathetic to demographics of current student populations, especially minority and women students.

  • More in tune with career issues of the day.

  • Eager to broaden their circle of professional contacts at conferences and to advertise the research achievements of their students.


  • Under enormous pressure to get their research off the ground. The demand to secure tenure, publish, and win research grants is great. They may transfer their stresses to their students.

  • Are generally inexperienced lecturers. They require mentoring from a past advisor or a senior faculty member within the department. Moreover, they are often under pressure to prepare new courses in areas related to their areas of expertise.

  • May not be able to afford postdoctoral fellows due to funding constraints.

  • Tend to overshoot expectations and abilities of beginning graduate students. They may assign a high-risk research problem that may jeopardize the career of a graduate student.

  • Are usually inexperienced at writing grant proposals.

  • Research projects may be too closely related to their own graduate and postdoctoral work. Innovation may be narrowly limited at this point of their career.

  • May view the teaching of "service" courses as an impediment to getting their research off the ground.

  • May try to impress others, particularly senior faculty in their department, in an effort to gain respect. This may manifest itself in unusual or unexplainable behavior.

  • Tend to be overachievers and may suffer early burnout.

  • Short track record of research. They are not yet recognized for their scientific achievements and have amassed few awards. In addition, they have no track record of successful alumni from their research group.

  • Less experienced in picking "good" students; are more concerned with getting enough bodies in the lab to get their research off the ground.

  • Tend to underestimate the time and effort required in setting up a laboratory, particularly the basic requirements.

  • May be bestowed with prestigious awards that are not consistent with their research track record. These may be politically motivated or may be given in the hopes that the anticipated "rising star" does not leave the department. This can cause undue stress on both the performances of the advisor and his/her students.

Mid-Career Faculty Advisors

Mid-career advisors are those who have secured tenure and achieved some level of recognition in their department for their research and teaching. Their job titles are Associate Professor or Professor.


  • Are at the peak of research performance: They generally have strong publication and awards track records.

  • Achieved recognition in their department.

  • Typically have a healthy research group with strong funding.

  • Are usually given awards that encourage research at the expense of teaching duties. Examples of such awards in Canada include the Canada Research Chair (CRC) Awards and the Killam Fellowships.

  • Have strong circles of contacts in academia and industry that their students and postdocs can tap in to.

  • Tend to take on greater decision-making responsibilities in their departments; they may be channelled into administrative roles.


  • Are often away networking at conferences. This may have adverse consequences for student-advisor relationships with respect to mentoring. Students may have to meet advisor by appointment! Most practical mentoring may come from fellow graduate students and postdocs.

  • May be on sabbatical leaves away from group. This may pose difficulties on a student if they were hoping to be mentored directly by their advisor.

  • May dominate research ideas and projects as part of their drive to maintain a successful track record of research. This may impact the freedom of students and postdocs to pursue their own research questions. Students and postdocs may just be "pairs of hands" in the lab and never learn how to do research themselves.

Senior Faculty Advisors

This group is usually composed of seasoned advisors who have achieved national and international recognition for their research. Their job titles are Professor, University Professor, or Emeritus Professor.


  • Have a long track record of research.

  • Have amassed significant awards of recognition.

  • Likely to have a substantial track record of alumni from their research group.

  • Have strong connections with other senior colleagues in their department and with their counterparts nationally and internationally.

  • Experienced lecturers and seasoned speakers.

  • Tend to have more experience at suggesting research projects to students and postdocs.

  • Have a strong track record of publications in peer-reviewed journals and have established research collaborators through joint authorship of their research papers.

  • Have usually established personal connections with industry and academic partners that can greatly benefit their students and postdocs.

  • Have a greater and more stable funding capacity and are more experienced grant proposal writers.

  • Feel less pressure overall, since tenure has already been achieved.

  • May be more experienced at picking "good" students.

  • May have taken on decision-making roles in their department such as sitting on committees, holding chairmanships, and taking on appointments in professional societies. They may be people of influence in their department.

  • May be on editorial boards of peer-reviewed journals.

  • Make a good choice as mentors as they have experience to impart to their students.

  • Experienced at making connections at conferences.


  • May be close to retirement, in the "swan song" of their career.

  • Enthusiasm to teach or to do research may have waned over the years. They may be less likely to adopt new teaching strategies.

  • Out of touch with lab equipment and the general day-to-day running of their own laboratories; less "hands on"; more likely to not know how their own equipment operates.

  • May exhibit stubborn or arrogant behavior as a byproduct of their job security through tenure.

  • Less likely to go out of their way to advertise their group or research. They tend to be passive in their approach and let their publication and awards track records speak for themselves.

  • May be "laissez-faire" in mentoring their students and postdocs. Frequent absences may lead them to appoint postdocs as mentors for graduate students and potentially jeopardize the student-advisor relationship.

  • May be out of touch with demographic issues facing younger faculty and students. They may seem detached and aloof.

  • May not have adequate group management skills particularly in cases of conflict resolution. This can be exacerbated by long absences from the lab and preoccupation with a myriad of other activities and the expectation that group management problems should sort themselves out eventually without their involvement.

  • May be out of touch with career issues of the day.

  • Tend to be less computer literate and Web savvy. They may not appreciate the benefits and advantages of the Internet.

Designing a Plan of Action

When contemplating your choice of advisor, it is advisable to use all available information about them. For those embarking on a chemistry career in Canada, the new resource at helps students to identify leading scientists in emerging areas of chemistry, to locate alumni from a department or a particular advisor's group who were successful in obtaining academic positions in Canada and the United States, and to discover particular patterns of recruitment for faculty positions at chemistry departments in Canada.

The points discussed in this article are meant as a guide, and depending on who you are as student or postdoc, some of the items given as disadvantages may actually be advantages for you (and vice versa). What is important is that the points will help to sharpen your thinking, to assess risks, and to allow you to come up with pointed and direct questions to ask potential advisor candidates.

Be aware also of the primary goals of every academic: (1) to be recognized for their contributions to a field of study (this is a self-serving goal); and (2) to propagate and perpetuate those contributions to the next generation of scientists (this is a nobler non-self-serving goal). What better way to accomplish these goals than by directly influencing the lives of their own students? It is the second goal that affirms the importance of a researcher's work and ideas and guarantees that they will continue to influence a field well into the future.

Ultimately, the responsibility for your career success rests with you. But a well-chosen advisor can greatly facilitate the process.