Scholarly Advice

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

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.


Doing this research not only will help you make an informed decision, it will also impress prospective advisers, she says. “Faculty love talking to people who have looked at their research,” Torczon says. “It makes you look good if you’ve done your homework.”

So be prepared with questions. “Say, ‘Professor, I read your book—here’s a question,’” Patterson says. “It should be an intelligent question.”

When you find a faculty member you like, ask if you can schedule a time to meet in his office during office hours, Patterson says. “It’s usually phrased something like, ‘I think highly of your work and would like the opportunity to work with you. Is there something I can work with you on and do you have time to work with me?’” Payne says.

Handling An Incompatible Match
Signs of a bad match include feedback that isn’t constructive or helpful and/or the faculty member isn’t available, Payne says. Other signs you might need to move on include the fact that the faculty member has a huge workload, is disengaged or is constantly traveling.

If the relationship isn’t working, confidential communication with the right people is critical. “You don’t want to talk to other faculty members—that’s seen as departmental gossip,” Payne says.

If you feel comfortable talking directly to your adviser, then do so. If you’re uncomfortable talking to your adviser, then you can go to the graduate director, department chair, assistant chair, graduate student ombudsman, dean or assistant dean.

You can decide to continue with a current adviser in order to finish your master’s degree, but look for another adviser for your doctorate.

“I know of many cases where a student starts and completes a master’s thesis with one faculty member, in the process gets really interested in the research done by another faculty member, and then does the PhD with another faculty member,” Torczon says.

That’s what Payne did. “For the first two years, I was with one adviser and there was this expectation that I would continue with that person,” he says. “As I grew as a student and a scholar, I realized the direction of my research wasn’t the same direction as my adviser’s research. It was difficult for me to talk to her because she was the one who convinced me to go to grad school. I had a great deal of anxiety.

It’s like approaching your mom or dad and telling them you want a new mom or dad. But students should remember that faculty members want what is best for the student and for the program.” In Payne’s case, his first adviser was gracious about his decision.

In some closely related fields such as anthropology, history and American studies, you may find a faculty member in another department who is working on a topic you’re interested in, Torczon says.

Having a plan throughout the process is key. “When faculties are deciding who they’re going to bring on for a full ride, they’re looking for students who have a real sense of where they’re going, who know why they want to come to that institution and what they want to do,” Patterson says.

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