Thursday, February 19, 2009

Some notes on picking grad schools/advisors

My undergrad advisor suggested I write a post warning people against getting too attached to the idea of having a specific advisor: the professor might leave, or you might switch interests.

My (undergrad) advisor said that when he had first gone to Carnegie Mellon University, he thought he was going to work with a professor who ended up going to Brown. Then he wanted to work with another professor, who had too many students at the time. He worked for a while with a professor who did not ultimately end up advising his Ph.D. thesis and did not end up with his final advisor until late in his graduate career. Despite all this advisor drama, he has been doing pretty well.

My experience so far also supports these claims. When I came to MIT I was supposed to be co-advised (at least, according to the sheet), but one of the co-advisors announced the week before fall semester that he was transferring. This was quite surprising, as he had recently gotten tenure. I have since been working with three professors, only one of whom I had thought I would work with when I first arrived. The first is one of my initial co-advisors; the second arrived at MIT as a new assistant professor 2 months after I arrived, and the third emerged during one of my group meetings and proclaimed he was joining my project. You never know what might happen.

The conclusion is not to get too attached to the idea that you'll be working with any specific person for the next n years of your life until you've worked n years with them already, and in that case you'll need to change the "next" to a "past."

I am also including some other good advice I got last year, combined with some advice I developed on my own. ;)

Some things to consider when picking advisors:
  • How hands-on are they?
  • How hands-on are they technically vs. big-picture? How much technical skill will your advisor imbue you with? You want an advisor who will give you a bigger picture than you have, but you don't want one who won't give any technical feedback.
  • How do they deal with you picking your own project? Is this something you want?
  • How many students have they produced who you want to be like? (How many students of theirs have gone on to become academic stars? Industrial stars? Why might this be?)
  • How awesome are the advisor's current students? These should be people you want to talk with and learn from.
  • How much funding do they have? Are their students comfortable with the level of support, or do they often find themselves needing to TA?
  • How much does your advisor collaborate with other professors? Why do they or don't they, and how do you feel about this?
  • How varied are the projects that your advisor's students work on?
  • How much does your advisor care about your future, and how much does s/he care about advancing his/her own career?
  • How much does the advisor want to be your advisor? This can make a big difference! Trying to be advised by a professor who has been around for a very long time might not work out that well since producing top-notch students probably isn't as much a big life goal as it is for someone else.
Some things to consider when picking schools:
  • Are the students there happy?
  • Do you feel like you can learn from the students there? Can they teach you what you want to learn? (Shocking revelation: you will be spending most of your time with other students rather than with your advisor.)
  • What are the course requirements like? Since course reqs range from 0 to 12, this can make quite a difference if all you want to do is research!! (MIT only has 4; that is why you should come here.)
  • Do you like the energy of the place? (MIT has much more energy than many places!)
  • Is there other stuff besides PL (free free to insert subfield of choice, but you don't have to--I'd understand), and do you care?
  • Are you going to want to live in that place for up to 8 years?
  • What is the quality of the undergrads? Do you care about this?
One thing to watch out for: read between the lines. They're not going to try to let anyone tell you anything bad about a place, so see what they're not telling you. Current graduate students are a great source of this information. One reason I ended up at MIT is because a graduate student at Stanford spend the visit weekend there convincing me I should come to MIT. To protect his identity he shall remain unnamed.

This is one of my "applying to grad school" blog posts.
  1. Deciding to Apply
  2. Standardized Tests
  3. Fellowships
  4. Applications
  5. School Visits
  6. Some notes on picking grad schools/advisors
  7. FAQ: Applying to Graduate School for Computer Science
You may also be interested in these blog posts I have written:


AMU said...

I was lucky enough to stumbled across your blog while searching for information about NSF fellowships. You give great advice all around (fellowships, grad schools, advisors . . . cooking). I'm sure you'll have many prospective grad students commenting and emailing you next fall when the whole application process starts up again.

I'll actually be joining you at MIT in the fall. Somehow, despite the tough tough year, my application was accepted by the chemistry department (its strange/miraculous because MIT is the only school I've heard from and this late into Feb. I don't expect to hear from anymore). Anywho, now I'm searching the web for any hints as to whether stimulus money is going to immediately fill the coffers of the NSF Graduate Fellowship. The National Science Board is meeting on Monday and Tuesday to discuss what will come of their 3 billion dollars of recovery. Hopefully, there will be some press from the event. If we are lucky, they'll double (or triple, why not?) the number of awards this year. The fellowship may lose a little in terms of prestige, but more fellowships means more money available for more hiring. It will be interesting to watch the time-line progress though. Will they announce an increase in awards in time for graduate departments to accept some students they were preparing to reject? Or will their communications be too tardy/ambiguous for the departments to risk adjusting their initial stance? We can only wait and see.

I'm bookmarking your blog. Continue the awesomeness.

Ravi said...

Wow.... your enthusiasm in writing all this detailed info related to grad school reminds me of a famous professor Dr. Randy Pausch who is unfortunately not here with us....

Keep it up... hope to see more from your perspective...

Unknown said...

This is excellent advice- and I'm happy to receive it directly from the personal blog of someone currently studying at MIT. I am finishing up undergrad this year, and am debating with myself whether to complete my graduate studies there, or take a completely different path and enroll in an MBA program.

I'll definitely be visiting your blog again for more of your great insights!

Barbara Dickens said...

in addition, it would be a good idea if the advisor you want to pick would be a little strict on you, because it just prove that he/she care about your phd dissertation paper. And not be just an advisor that would turn up when the deadline was near.

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