You have finally arrived! After a yearlong search for a university, after enduring writing grueling numbers of applications and countless emails to former faculty members begging them to get their reference letters submitted on time, you are now here. You have heard enough welcomes, enough about policies and procedures, enough advice. Now, you just want to jump into your classes and hope that all those feelings of everything new starts to feel familiar so you are more comfortable in your new environment. 

Am I going to give you more advice that you won’t remember? No, I am going to tell you secrets, the secrets of successful students.  Therefore, I should first tell you how to find a good adviser.  Advisers can be different than the academic adviser you are assigned.  Academic advisers help you register for your classes. You may have been matched to that assigned person because you checked off an interest area in your application or essay that matches the faculty member’s research area.  In this blog, I am talking about finding a research adviser. This person could be one in the same if you choose it to be that way.

You may be saying, “OMG! How can I choose an adviser when I don’t really even know what research topics there are or which classes to take?” It’s all about experimentation! Take a deep breath and give yourself some time to experiment by taking a variety of different classes. Choose one course from your department that advances knowledge in an area you have experience with and choose another one in your department that just seems really interesting that may be totally beyond anything you have ever done before. Why should you choose courses that stay within your department? Didn’t we sell you on the fact that we were so interdisciplinary here and that you could work across departments and schools? Yes, we did, but your first task is to get some skills and competencies through courses that make you valuable to the faculty that will be signing off on your thesis or project. Remember, a faculty member in a department is looking for a student that has skills that can contribute to her/his research or has interesting ideas that could extend their interest areas. Students that took or are taking the faculty member’s classes will be the first group advisers recruit from. A new student taking classes outside of the department before she/he has a good foundation of coursework within the home department usually has a more difficult time finding a research adviser. These students also do not perform as well on the Ph.D. Qualifying exams because they haven’t built a cohort of peers within their home department to study and work with. Until you join a research group, you will build your cohort by interacting with other students in your classes. If those classes are outside of your home department, it may take you longer to feel comfortable within your own department, especially if you see others studying as a group for common classes you are not in. 

Students coming to see me conveying feelings of isolation are usually those who took most of their first year classes outside of the home department.

If you are self-funded, part-time, or on a partial scholarship receiving no stipend, you should start shopping around for a faculty member to be your Research Adviser. You may start by interviewing the academic adviser you were assigned. Yes, I said “interview,” remember the faculty member gets to interview you as well at the same time to see her or his research is aligned with yours as well as investigating whether they can work with you. This is your future. You may be spending the next few years of your life under this person’s direction. You need someone who will groom you so you can find a “real” job or go into academia.


Coming up in future Blogs: The different dances of the Teaching Assistant and Research Assistant and “How to train your adviser.”

Enjoy and be safe!

Dean Panetta