MINIMIZING RISK WHEN CHOOSING A RESEARCH LAB FOR PhD


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Applying to universities with good PhD programs is only a third of the application process. Most students end up ignoring what is considered a “good” advisor and assume their achievements (GPA, publications, winning your March Madness bracket, blah blah blah, what have you) will automatically garner them that baller PhD advisor. As PhD Comics often states, selecting the right advisor is like being in a long-term relationship. If you ask me, it is more like arranged marriage – find the word on the block about your future spouse’s family, and then meet and question your future spouse.

Ending up with a well-funded advisor is not a draw of luck but about doing your homework smartly on the advisor and the PhD program. How do you end up with a good advisor (I didn’t want to be stuck taking care of their dog while they are in Magens Bay for some conference. True Story.) and in a good research lab (Not doing support/maintenance/code-monkey IT work but doing actual research, the entire reason I am there for)?

When I decided to pursue a PhD while working as a software engineer for a year at a major corporation, I didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot in my PhD program, be in a bad situation, and end up bitching (nicely, of course) about my disastrous PhD experience on some forum or blog. Instead, I opted to do research – research on the programs I was interested in – the professors, their peers, their funding, their citations, and their graduate students. I wanted to minimize risk and avoid bad situations that plague some PhD students. I have split this blog post into two sections (like an engineering publication).

The first section details the process involved in finding the rich advisor. The second section is about interviewing your prospective advisor when they invite you for a campus visit at their university. A lot of these thoughts and questions are logical but I have come across too many prospective PhD students who fail to do their research and homework on their advisor, their funding situation, and the PhD program. Then, they complain about how life is hard because they didn’t do their due diligence and got duped.

WORD ON THE BLOCK

Finding a university program and a professor whose interest matched mine wasn’t difficult, US News College Rankings list is a decent place to start, though some schools are known for X field more than A-Z fields and this doesn’t get reflected in those rankings. I will go over my process of finding a good professor (with funding) in my field and contacting them. Funding was the top priority for me as a PhD student (should be everyone’s). My process might be skewed towards the engineering discipline.

CITATIONS

This is obvious, I quickly searched a professor’s name on Google Scholar to see how well they have been cited and what they are known for. I stayed away from advisors that published in mediocre to bad journals and conferences or are one hit wonders. If they are well cited and publish in top peer-reviewed journals/conferences frequently, they are more likely to have some kind of funding.

FUNDING

NIH and NSF make it easy to find out the funding situation of a professor. NIH’s Project Reporter reveals how much funding a professor has and the duration of their project. NSF has a similar tool called Award Search. I used these tools exhaustively to find out funding track records of the professor I was interested in. I didn’t want to be a TA forever because my advisor had no money, which would be indicative that they aren’t producing anything novel in their research field.

Another great way to find out about a professor’s funding is to read the Acknowledgements section in their most recent publication. Not only it helped me skim through a professor’s most-recent publication but it also hinted at their funding sources, and then I used Google (I’ve learned a lot by using Google and Wikipedia, and stopped assuming how the world works). It is amazing how many prospective students I meet that do not research their future advisors and are choosing to do research in their prime (Research Fail).

The offer letters I received, generally after being admitted into a PhD program and before the university visit, told me precisely if funding for all my PhD years were guaranteed as a combination of Research Assistantship or Teacher’s Assistantship (TA). One school asked me to pay tuition for the first semester so I could “settle in” and then find a research group to fund me (What a joke, no one in the right mind should even consider this trap).

PhD dissertations available on ProQuest or other free library sources from the professor’s lab can be helpful in understanding the direction of their research lab and possibly, what will be the next set of funding related to.

COLLABORATORS

When looking at research labs, I put an emphasis on finding that research lab’s professor’s collaborators. The more collaborators an advisor has, the more outgoing, organized, courteous, and respected they are amongst their colleagues. Outgoing is very important as holding editorial positions, getting funding (someone who you networked with might review your grant submission or critique your publication), and recognition works purely on networking. Also, if the advisor runs out of funding or can’t fund me, then I could piggyback on their collaborator’s projects and still get a stipend. (Wow, this is how it exactly happened and I ended up with two advisors). I searched a professor’s name in social-networking sites such as Biomed Experts (Research Gate, Academia.edu, Zotero, and Mendeley are the newer ones) to get an idea of whom they are collaborating with. Google Scholar also helped me find a professor’s co-authors/collaborators.

ACCLAIMS

Advisors that are renowned tend to have funding as well. An easy way to find out if the professor is well regarded in their respective fields is to look for their title in societies such as IEEE and ACM. The title is indicative of how their peers view the professor’s work. This may not be valid for young professors. Professor’s CV (found on their website or Google) also discloses their funding and if they are reviewers/editors of prominent journals and conferences. This means they are acclaimed.

I searched for the titles of professors in societies such as IEEE and ACM to figure out if they are well regarded in their field. The title indicated how their peers viewed their work. Though, I did realize that this might not be valid for young professors who are not tenured yet.

CONTACT

After doing my homework on a prospective advisor, I had to email them to find out if they are looking for any students to join their research labs. I didn’t want to join a PhD program just to find out that the advisor I want to work with has a full lab or is going on sabbatical or even worse, has no funding next year. I threaded a polite and succinct email that could be read on a smartphone i.e. all text, no random PDFs of my CV attached to the email or zip files of my project (lol, who does that?).

My email to an advisor was simple:

  1. quick introduction of myself including my name, my degree at the university I attended, and my interest in their university’s program,
  2. my goal for PhD such as “specialize in computer vision techniques,”
  3. a listing of two my most relevant projects and courses,
  4. mention that I was seeking admission into their program and asked if they were accepting new PhD students in their group,
  5. a link to my website showcasing all my projects in undergrad/Masters,
  6. signed off the email sincerely and inserted a 10-line text form of my concise CV, which ended with a link to my website.

With this type of email format, I got a 65% response rate from all the professors I contacted at different universities and I had two phone interviews before I applied to their programs, despite having no publications to my name.

(There could be a better format).

In my statement of purpose for a university’s application, I mentioned all the professors that were taking new students (Obviously, I wouldn’t apply to Prof. Cuervo’s lab at University of Margaritaville if he isn’t taking any students this year. Applications are expensive. GRE scores are sent to a university on a disc by the ETS. Each disc contains 100s of student scores and yet, they charge $20 per student for sending their scores to 1 university. It’s a rip-off.). Once I applied to their PhD program, I wrote another concise email asking them to follow up on my application.

CASUAL WATERBOARDING

I treated this as the most important part of the process of selecting my advisor. Once I got invited to visit a university, the chances are I was already admitted. Some schools had already sent me my admissions/offer letter for PhD. During these visits, I met with several possible professors and they all tried recruiting me into their research labs (yay!).

Well, there were a couple of professors who ignored me, and I ignored them too. (Mutual ignorance breeds mutual distrust – Andrew Carnegie, Wealth, 1889). Contrary to popular belief, the ball was in my court and not in the professor’s. I didn’t have to impress them (I am already visiting!), but they had to impress me. It was time to find out the word on the block about these professors and question their operations. It’s always surprising to meet prospective PhD students who do not ask these seemingly logical questions (because they are nervous or scared to ask their future advisor and start their PhD by being a goat) and risk getting screwed over in their PhD.

During my visit, I interrogated the professors with these questions listed below (by no means this list is exhaustive). I figured professors who are disciplined will answer all my questions really well and this is a great sign of the ideal advisor. It is evident that research requires discipline – solving a problem for years, publishing, collaborating, writing grants, networking, logistics, and managing graduate students. Any professor that tried to circle around my question I became skeptical of (and believe me, there were a few of them).

QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR FUTURE ADVISOR

I asked these questions casually with a smile on my face, while I interspersed them with related questions about the professor’s research. It has to be salt-and-pepper, can’t just outright interrogate your future advisor (not pulling nails – insert clip of best movie interrogation scene – Syriana). Professors I met gave me a little glimpse into their research and current projects, which helped me ask more questions about their research. This helped me with the salt-and-pepper process. Professors are not going to eat me for asking these questions. Actually, they are genuinely nice.

CROSS CHECKING WITH OTHER GRADUATE STUDENTS

This was an eye opening process for me. Asking similar questions to the graduate students of a professor’s lab brought out inconsistencies in the professor’s answers. Obviously, I believed the graduate students more so than the professor – how can you ever beat first-hand experience? I always met with the graduate students of the professor that I was interested in, typically, over lunch or dinner. They also told me about how the department is run, which can be important sometimes. I am surprised how much the administrative assistant helps me with my paperwork for conferences or the PhD program. Looking back, I can see that a department was disorganized based on how they organized the visit for prospective PhD students to their program. The graduate students that I met during my visit were always candid about their answers.

DISCUSSION & CONCLUSIONS

Every publication has an end discussing possible limitations of the presented methods and future research directions. Doing my research when selecting a PhD research group helped me avoid some bad situations in my PhD experience that could’ve dried out all my enthusiasm for research.

Hope this has been useful to the reader in figuring out how to select a good advisor for their PhD and good luck!


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