Online Dating and Finding an Advisor

Materials Science and Engineering

One of the best feelings as a student is receiving that acceptance letter from a school or program you thought was nearly impossible to get into. However, for graduate school, getting in is only the first step. The next step is to find an advisor, which can be difficult. For programs that don’t have official rotation schedules for their students, this means you’re on your own to untangle your path to a PhD. As you embark on your adventure, you may have to get used to hearing some of these commonly used expressions: 

  • “You have an amazing records, went to a top-notch undergraduate school, and have a great research background, but I don’t have enough funding for another student…” 
  • “According to your research background, it doesn’t seem like you would be an appropriate fit for my lab…” 
  • “It’s great that you want to join my lab. but I have limited available positions. I will have to get back to you about whether I can take you on…” 
  • “Let me get back to you about funding…” 

Don’t let these responses bog you down! In fact some of the best advice I can give you is contained in a few simple questions. 

Consider dating. Have you ever wanted to establish a relationship with the person sitting across from you, hoping against hope that the person doesn’t judge you too harshly for your flaws? Or perhaps you come away from a date feeling unsure about how the night actually went? Maybe you went into it with unrealistic expectations, and by the end you ultimately felt disappointed. Well, don’t worry! Because if you’re going to find an advisor for graduate school, you may end up rediscovering many of these same feelings. Basically, finding an advisor is eerily similar to online dating. 

Now, before you click away from this blog, hear me out a bit. The comparison really does make sense. You send emails to multiple professors explaining how interested you are in their research. You attach your CV to those emails in order to establish your credentials and suitability. Some professors write you back wanting to meet, and some don't. You meet with the professors multiple times, attend their group meetings, and get a feel for how they run their groups. By the end of your month-long dance, you decide whether or not you want to join the group. Personally, I think it's surreal how similar online dating and "advisor finding" are. 

Committing to any lab group can be daunting, since 5-plus years is not a trivial amount of time. Maybe you want to find that ideal advisor, so you bide your time thinking he or she will eventually turn up and you’ll get your way. In reality, that could end up far from true — and the clock is still ticking! In the end, any advisor who is willing to give you a chance and invest in you may turn out better than the "ideal" one who won’t or can't offer you a position. Regardless, you’ll likely have to compromise in some way, so it all depends on what qualities you value the most in an advisor.  

Using a loose analogy to convey a parting message, keep in mind that anyone you’re dating is a better choice than the person of your dreams for one simple reason. They’re real…