I’ve had the opportunity to speak about Homo naledi and my research on this fascinating, newly-discovered hominin at many schools throughout the United States the last few months. Spending time with old friends, making new friends, and meeting lots of interested and enthusiastic students has been a blast! I’m flattered when undergraduates and MS/MA students ask for my advice about pursuing a PhD – which starts with deciding which adviser to work with.
The most important consideration when identifying PhD programs to pursue, and ultimately which one to attend, is your adviser. To paraphrase Horst from the classic Simpsons’ episode Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk, I cannot überemphasize the importance of your doctoral adviser.
Unfortunately, the cringe-worthy experiences of many others whose advisers were worthless or downright damaging are as instructive as my entirely positive path to the PhD. I started at Wisconsin in 2007 and finished in 2013. Across those six years, I saw only two students leave because they weren’t cut out for it intellectually. The vast majority of graduate students who left did so because of their adviser. I can’t give you an exact number but recalling them one by one requires two hands’ worth of fingers. My department is not anomalous in this regard; friends who went to grad school at Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, Duke, NYU, Arizona State, etc. all report similar observations. These are not bad programs riddled with bad advisers. But none of them are perfect places, and sometimes two otherwise capable people just don’t get along.
I’ve seen graduate students pick an adviser based primarily on prestige, and avoid an adviser primarily on lack of prestige. Unsurprisingly, these students tend to not be happy, because your adviser’s productivity and brilliance don’t directly relate to how well they advise graduate students. In my experience, research productivity and advising ability really aren’t consistently correlated. Unproductive researchers can be useless advisers, and highly productive researchers can still make time for you. Don’t use CV lines as an important barometer. That said, I firmly believe having an adviser who is at least modestly active is important. Having a finger on the pulse of your field requires at least some activity, and an adviser who is clueless about your field is not going to help you get a job.
I’ve also seen graduate students not apply to work with older and younger advisers. Again, this seems myopic to me. I don’t think your adviser’s age matters much. Younger, untenured professors can be energetic and motivated – but so can older, comfortably tenured professors. However, age can matter in how you relate to your adviser. I’ve seen advisers who are old enough to be their student’s mom or dad act, well, parentally. Is that what you want? I’ve also seen young advisers develop friendships with their graduate students that negatively affected their students’ professional development. Your adviser’s age is simply not that useful in drawing broad inferences. Just be cognizant of what their age might mean to your graduate training.
So how do you figure out which adviser will help you succeed rather than make you want to pull your hair out? It’s pretty simple: you get to know them a bit before you commit. Wow, that sounded like a line from a dating website.
When I was getting ready to apply to PhD programs, I spent hours and hours reading and re-reading papers on the three broad bio anthro topics that interested me most: evo devo, paleoanthropology, and life history. When you narrow down your topics like this, you’ll inevitably start coming across the same names over and over. I applied to study with two people working in each of those areas (six total). I made appointments via email or phone shortly after I sent in my applications. Two never replied to my initial emails and week later phone calls following up. You won’t be surprised to learn that I didn’t consider them any further. Three were within driving distance but one was a flight away.
Of those four potential advisers, the first forgot I was coming, chatted with me for 30 minutes about their committee overload, had a grad student take me to lunch, and did not give me a tour of the department. No thanks!
The second invited me to their home over a break because that was convenient for me, we chatted about our families, what I wanted to study, and was generally very inviting. I ultimately had to pass due to total lack of funding from their school, but had they offered me any amount of money, I might’ve had a difficult decision to make. (More on money in a moment.)
The person I flew to meet spent an hour talking about wine and did not even have a grad student take me to lunch. I couldn’t believe it! Here I am, a near-broke grad student working part time to scrounge up the money to fly out to meet a potential adviser, and it’s a total waste of time. Well, no, it wasn’t a total waste of time – I knew I was absolutely not going to work with them despite attractive funding!
When I visited Wisconsin, my adviser and I chatted about paleoanthropology, our shared academic experiences, research ideas, and many other things I found we had common interests in. I got a personal introduction to the other bio anthro faculty in the department. We also had hamburgers and beer for lunch. To be clear, you don’t need to become friends with your adviser, but you need to at least be able to get along with them.
Arguably the most important decision I had made up to that point in my life was a very easy decision to make, and I succeeded in my graduate training before it started.
I was fortunate to be able to make these trips, but a phone or Skype call is free, and can yield very valuable information. I am shocked when I hear a grad student never met his or her PhD adviser in person. This is, in my opinion, a terrible mistake to make.
There are two other important considerations in choosing your PhD adviser besides how well you get along: track record and money. Find out how many students they’ve accepted and successfully graduated. And after earning their PhD, did their students land postdocs, faculty positions, or other gainful employment? Younger professors will not have an extensive track record. But having produced very few successful graduate students is a yellow flag for middle-aged and older professors.
Finally, we get to the money. Simple: I’ve never met someone finish who was fully funded but had a terrible relationship with their adviser. Conversely, I’ve met many people who had no funding but a great adviser who did finish. Money matters, but not as much as finishing. That said, it’s important to be pragmatic. The average starting salary for a biological anthropologist is not much. Do the math: can you pay off $100,000 in student loan debt at 8% interest making $65,000/year? You can, but you will have a very modest lifestyle.
Here’s my closing thought: Dr. Karen Kelsky (theprofessorisin.com) makes enough money doing your adviser’s job that she quit her post as tenured professor and head of Illinois’ Anthropology Department. There are a lot of terrible advisers out there. Like Indiana Jones at the end of Last Crusade, choose wisely!