Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Tao of Grad School part 3

Part 3: The right advisor?
Finding a suitable advisor is important but hard to achieve. Truthfully, the US system provides a better way for grad students to find a compatible advisor and vice versa. While the details vary, you are accepted into a graduate student class, and assigned one preliminary advisor based on your expressed research interests. However, you're not allowed to make your final selection before the end of the first semester, and during that time you're required to have interviews with at least three other faculty members. At the end of the semester, you hand in your ranked list of potential advisors. If your first choice turns you down, you get your second choice, etc.

While these interviews are very useful, the real benefit of this system stems from the fact that an advisee gets a full semester to get to know potential advisors as well as other grad students in their research group. Thus, you can get the skinny on how a Prof is to work for. While you shouldn't take everything at face value, you can certainly detect trends. Within this system, you could collect vital information such as:

What's the average completion time for a Ph.D. in this group?
Not as relevant in Norway, but within the US system it's DEFINITELY an issue. As there is no standardized time limit for a Ph.D. most places (apart from a definite cut-off limit ten years following admission into grad school), and your advisor is the one telling you when you're ready to defend, the time required could vary with several years. Also something to keep in mind; at some point you become extremely qualified, ultracheap labour, and if your advisor is short on funds, he or she might take advantage of this fact. A useful guideline is the amount of time it took for your potential advisor to graduate. Figure on spending at least this amount of time, as a fragile ego might assume that if you finish quicker, you're smarter than he/she, and that's simply not possible.............

Publications - how many and where?
On average, how many publications can a prospective Ph.D. from this group count on leaving the lab with? If the number is low, can it be explained by a comparatively higher impact factor of the journals in question? Make no mistake; when they say "Publish or perish," that's exactly what they mean...

What's the drop-off rate among the grad students in the group?
Pretty self-explanatory. If the percentage of grad students dropping out of the Ph.D. program in one group is significantly higher than the department average, that might be a clue right there.

What kind of jobs have former grad students ended up with?
Another self-explanatory but important question. Are you more likely to hawk used - I mean pre-owned - cars at CarMax or working as Director's Fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratories following your graduation from the research group in question?

Advisor peculiarities
Are you expected to keep the same working hours as your advisor, lest you'll be accused of not working enough? Hands-on advisor or do-whatever-you-want-as-long-as-you-do-what-I-would-have-done type? Will he or she be available or always out of office/too damn busy? Frequent status reports? Thrice-weekly group meetings including one at Saturday morning? Who writes the manuscripts - you or the advisor? Is the advisor prone to changing your entire project around about half-way in the expected grad school progression? TA or RA and if the former; how many classes would you expected to teach? Is transitioning between TA and RA used as a reward or punishment (depending on which direction)?

Much if not most of this information is unavailable within the Norwegian system if you transfer in to the university. Typically you have an interview and that's that. You may or may not get to meet with and talk to the other grad students, and most of the information listed above is certainly not being handed to you. Thus, you may not have much to go on. Obviously you'll be able to pick up whether you are completely socially incompatible with your advisor - i.e. if the Devil manifests himself in the corner of his office (big shout-out to Jimmy James C. for that one).

You'll also be able to figure out whether the potential advisor appears to have a genuine interest in the project he or she is pitching, which might well be the most important aspect.....

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