Scholarly Advice

Grad school 101: a crash course in what to look for in an academic advisor

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As you plan your graduate school career, one of the most important decisions you’ll make is choosing an adviser. Read on for a study guide on how to choose the right adviser for you and what to do if your adviser turns out to be a bad match.

“Graduate advisers are extraordinarily important,” says Dr. Brian Payne, vice provost for academic programs at Old Dominion University. “Advisers have a lot of influence over students’ curriculum, courses and future.”

Advisers are important to your career because they write letters of recommendation for scholarships, internships and fieldwork, says Dr. Eric Patterson, dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University.

Just as a good fit can help advance your career, “A bad fit can be disastrous,” Payne says. “I have heard stories from other schools where people ended up dropping out because of conflicts with their advisers,” he says.

In Payne’s case, his first adviser was the one who convinced him to go to graduate school. “I was a first-generation college student. My advisers were kind of like my parents. I would go to them for advice and help.”

Do Your Homework
Start your research your senior year of college. Some students pick a graduate adviser first and then choose a university for grad school because the professor they’re interested in teaches there, Patterson says. “You’re not just looking for a school, but looking for scholars,” he says. “When you’re researching graduate schools, you should also be looking for who you want to work with on your thesis.”

In addition to researching what current topics your potential faculty members are working on at the moment, you also want to know what they plan to do next, says Virginia Torczon, dean of graduate studies and research for Arts & Sciences at the College of William and Mary.

“It’s critical that students identify an adviser working on something the students are interest in,” Torczon says. “They’re going to spend a lot of time on this project.”

At Old Dominion University as well as other schools, professors offer seminars that give prospective students a chance to get to know faculty members and their research, Payne says.

Also, it is a good idea to read professors’ web pages, academic papers and curriculum vitaes (CVs), which provide a detailed outline of their accomplishments, Torczon says. She also suggests talking to other graduate students—your future colleagues. Find out if those grad students like what they’re doing, with whom they’re working, and what opportunities they’ve had working with that adviser.

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