The Professor Has No Clothes: Advisor Hunting and What To Do When you Pick the Wrong One
Selecting a mentor can seem like a pretty daunting decision to most students but - just like nearly every other step in the process to becoming a full-fledged academic - there is a way to break things down and weigh your options logically.
While I am going to fully lay out what are (in my opinion) the most important details of selecting a professor to work with, please do not assume that this blog post is fully exhaustive in the area of picking a mentor. I will undoubtedly update this page over time as I gather additional information from the experiences of others (maybe yours!). Feel free to leave comments or hit me with a DM on Instagram with your thoughts on content I could add.
Three Domains of Mentor-Mentee Fit
Generally speaking, there are three aspects of a mentor that a student is going to want to examine to assess their "fit" with a potential major advisor. Now remember - no advisor is perfect. But that doesn't mean we won't try to get as perfect a fit as possible.
Domain One: How Much Ass Do They Kick?
Some professors get a lot done. Others do not. This can be measured in publications, grants, populations served, etc. The exact metric does not matter but the point remains - there is a wide gap in how efficacious faculty can be.
The ones that get a lot done will generally be the most suited at helping you get a lot done. Obviously, there are exceptions to this (such as professors that are so focused on their own career growth that they neglect their students). But for the most part, it’s best to pick a professor that is strongly invested in their own career and can teach to how to be similarly invested in your own career.
Domain Two: Do They Study Something Cool?
Do they study something that you find interesting? Better yet, is it a topic that you would EXISTENTIALLY SUFFER FROM not being able to study it (bonus points! Workaholism is rampant and can be a competitive edge)?
Domain Three: Do You Vibe With Them?
What is their personality like? Are they an asshole? Well, of course they are an asshole - but how much of an asshole? Is it an acceptable level of assholery? Are they at least palatable in their interactions with other human beings (namely, you)? Basically, are you all going to want to kill each other before this whole thing is said and done with?
If the answer is "I probably am not going to like them by the end of this PhD thing," then I would look elsewhere. Having a good relationship with your mentor after you graduate is important. They can help you get to the next step in the journey in terms of jobs, post docs, etc. Also, they often have data that you can use (at least for a little while) to keep publishing post-graduation while you're waiting for a seed grant to hit or something (assuming you've already pumped out enough papers from your dissertation data).
Examples of Poor Mentor-Mentee Fit
While there are obviously other areas that you could examine (e.g., publishing vs. practice/clinical-orientation, social justice-related needs awareness, connections to valuable other persons in the field), these three - ass-kicking level, content area coolness, and vibe - are the main factors that seem to drive grad students' selection of a mentor.
Just to further clarify these domains and their impact on your graduate career, here are some examples students having a mis-match with their professors:
Example 1: The Ass-Kicking Professor
Selecting a professor that exhibits high levels of productivity without regard to their own content area (aka - what knowledge do you want to bring into this world?) or personality fit (aka - how much can you stand them?).
Is the content area something that you want to become an expert in? In many, MANY well-established areas of research, studying with a famous/well-established professor is literally the only way to break through the din of (often literally) dozens of other professors and professor-to-be’s who are also trying to publish in that area. Choosing to study under a professor who is well-established in his or her content area is often a good option.
For these professors, there is a often times some conflict in their personality type (often called “working style,” the seemingly the more professional term used for this) that cannot and will not be resolved. This unfortunately may not be apparent at early stages of working with the professor because they are able to put more senior grad students and postdocs in between the two of you to buffer you from the effects of their lack of humanness. These more seniors grad students and postdocs oftentimes are very well-meaning people who generally agree that the professor has some personality deficits but are obviously not incentivized to address them directly (or even talk about them). For example, more senior grad students working for said ass-kicking professor might not give an accurate appraisal of what it's like to work with their professor because they are afraid that if the professor finds out then that student might find their career options suddenly limited. This happens and is unfortunately but is part of the academic machine.
Also, these kinds of professors usually aren't flexible in you picking a topic that isn't exactly within their area of expertise, but - to be honest - working with these folks usually isn't worth it unless you want to glean from the inertia they've already created in their lab.
Example 2: The Professor That Studies Cool Shit
Selecting a professor that has a great content area that you are super interested is probably the most classic choice that students make (also it is often the first thing that advisors of undergraduate students will mention when pitching the topic of grad school to undergrads. That conversation often goes something like...
“It sounds like you’ve really liked studying XYZ. You could always pursue that interest in grad school and become an expert in that area. Actually Professor ABC here in the XPZ department studies that topic; you could work directly with them."
The issue with choosing a professor based strictly on their content area is that it often ignores personality fit and - potentially - productivity. This is even more apparent with "cool" areas of study that attract a lot of interest.
Like in the case of enormous productivity, a professor with the “perfect” content area can often mask issues in other areas or simply ignore deficits in other areas. This is just the way life is. They have a valuable resource (i.e., "access") and (if it’s a good content area) that resource is going to be in demand. They probably don't have to work that hard to find another student ready to become their prodigy if you decide to go elsewhere.
Example 3: The Professor That Vibes the Most
Ahh, the vibey professor. This is a great domain to double-down on in many ways though you may find some limitations in terms of how much you are able to get done in your time with them and how much expertise they can add to your research agenda.
More emotionally healthy professors also are more likely to set boundaries/maintain a work-life balance and - while this is good and you should internalize this practice - it might happen to slow you down (especially if they are already tenured!). But if you are a go-with-the-flow kind of person and wanting someone who lives life by those rules as well, this shouldn't be a make-or-break issue for you.
That being said, simply enjoying your graduate school experience is not everything. I’ve seen many grad students enjoy their time in grad school, having wistful and inspiring conversations with their caring mentor, only to be left jobless and not as skilled at the end of their graduate experience (compared to other students). They probably still have great relationships with their advisors. But having a job is a cool thing. EsPeCiAlLy iN tHiS eCoNoMy.
The Reality of the Situation: Two out of Three Ain't Bad
Pick 1 (maybe 2) out of 3 - such is life
No one gets everything that they want out of a mentor. In my mind, it is literally a game of balancing “what can’t you live without” (on the positives) with “what can you live with” (on their downsides/shortcomings).
Some people really want to research a specific area of inquiry. Great; to those people, I'd say get ready to make compromises in the areas of mentor productivity and/or personality fit in order to make that happen. You want someone who’s a perfect personality match? Get ready to bend your content area in a new direction (or take it up/down a notch to match their pace of productivity). Want to get shit down and get a great job? Then... well, you get the picture.
Like I said, you get to pick one (maybe two) good domains of a potential professor. How do you choose? Well, I say to double-down on the one strength you care about most. Then just make sure you can live with their failings. Because everyone will fail you in something! But when you have that perfect fit with their key strength area, you can more easily learn to live with their potential downsides.
The bottom line
You have to choose what is right for you based on your own life/career goals.
Ask yourself, what do I want most?
To be productive?
To study something I enjoy?
To be happy/balanced?
Because you're at best going to get two out of three but don't be sad, because...