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Choosing a graduate adviser

Use your research skills to explore options and make an informed decision

by Jen Heemstra, special to C&EN
September 10, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 33


Two people standing in front of a building, looking at bubbles with other people's faces on them.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock

If you are thinking about graduate school or are starting this fall, choosing a thesis adviser is likely weighing heavily on your mind. You may consider choosing a thesis adviser based on the type of research that you find most interesting. While this should certainly be a component of your decision, it is also important to look beyond the research. In fact, the mentoring style of your adviser and the culture of their research group will likely have significantly more impact on your happiness and success in graduate school than the research itself.

Everyone has different options when it comes to selecting a research adviser, but within the choices you do have, how will you decide who to choose? There is no rubric or flow chart that can guarantee you make the best decision, but below I outline a few guiding principles that can help you explore your options.

Consider your preferences. Many advisers and labs offer a good graduate experience, but it just might not be the best experience for you. Do you want to be in a large research group where you network with lots of people? Or would you prefer a small research group where everyone interacts on a daily basis? Consider whether you want an adviser who is in the lab every day asking how your experiment is going, or if you want to be independent and only seek out advice when you need it. Ask yourself whether you want to build other professional skills such as grant writing, teaching, or science communication while you are in graduate school and which advisers and labs offer those opportunities. Even if you don’t have all your priorities and preferences figured out, you can notice which labs make you feel comfortable and which make you feel like you need to change who you are in order to fit in or impress others. Many mentors and labs have characteristics that are not inherently good or bad, just different, and the key is to find experiences that most closely align with your goals for your graduate experience.

Beware of red flags. The research community is working to create an academic culture where harassment, bullying, and other negative practices are not tolerated, but these things still persist at some labs. Be aware if you notice signs of hostility or disrespect from the adviser or among group members and recognize the impact that this could have on your mental health. And consider if there is a culture of overwork. Few labs still have policies that explicitly mandate unhealthy work hours, but you can observe when lab members go home—if they wait to leave until after the adviser does, that can be a bad sign. Ask about the lab’s policies for vacation time and family emergencies. If policies allow no flexibility to accommodate work-life balance, work and life may collide in a way that could derail one or the other. At the same time, you can also look for positive mentoring practices such as policies to support mental health and well-being or advisers who encourage their lab members to participate in activities outside of the lab. You can also look for evidence of a positive lab culture, such as if lab members celebrate when one person publishes a paper or wins an award.

Do your research. You can learn quite a lot about an adviser or lab before you join by using your research skills. Most groups have a lab website where you can find names of current and former lab members. If the website doesn’t have contact information, you can find people on sites such as LinkedIn or Twitter. While you might not get a response from everyone, many people will be willing to talk about their experience and answer questions. The key is to ask specific questions. Instead of asking if someone is a good mentor, consider asking how the adviser responds when told about a failed experiment. You can also ask if the lab has a policy granting time off for family emergencies.

Look to the future. As you gather information and consider your decision, think beyond the 2 to 5 years that you expect to spend in graduate school. While your adviser has a significant impact on your experience during those years, in the best of cases, they will continue to mentor you throughout your career.

Jen Heemstra is a professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter at @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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