Selecting an Advisor

This is perhaps one of the most important decisions you will make regarding your undergraduate research experience. Your advisor can not only serve as an invaluable resource on the technical aspects of your chosen research project but also provide you with invaluable career assistance and mentoring, and serve as a potential reference for future employment and/or advanced study. Consequently, it is important to make a thoughtful, informed decision when selecting your undergraduate research advisor. So be sure to take your time so you make a sound decision.

The best way to make a good decision is to become informed concerning your choices. Make a list of the available faculty whose research interests you and make an appointment to meet with each one and be sure to approach this meeting as an interview, which means you should go prepared with a list of questions and ready to answer any questions your prospective advisor may have. Ask your friends for recommendations regarding faculty who are known to be enthusiastic and good undergraduate research mentors. Also, remember that you are joining a research group, so consider dropping by the laboratory for an unscheduled visit and speak candidly with as many of your prospective group members as you can.

Before you meet with any prospective advisor you should consider what exactly it is that you want from your undergraduate research experience. Everyone has different reasons for participating undergraduate research. There are no right or wrong reasons. However, if you don’t know what you want from your undergraduate research experience, it isn’t likely that you are going to get as much as you could from the experience. The following is a list of some questions you might consider in determining what you want out of your undergraduate research experience:

  • recommendation for graduate or pre-professional study;
  • mentoring;
  • work experience;
  • money;
  • technical knowledge;
  • laboratory skills;
  • presentation skills;
  • technical writing skills;
  • opportunity to work independently;
  • opportunity to do cutting-edge research;
  • opportunity to use sophisticated instrumentation;
  • opportunity to figure out if you want to pursue this discipline as a career; and/or
  • self-confidence

Having this information will help you figure out what exactly it is that you want from your research advisor. The following is a list of some questions you might consider in choosing a research advisor:

  • How old is your advisor? Is he/she likely to be able to provide you with a reference letter in five or more years?
  • What is your advisor’s educational background?
  • What research experience does your advisor have in the area of interest to you?
  • What is your advisor’s position at the university? Does he/she have tenure?
  • What is your research advisor’s reputation at the university and in the greater academic community in scholarship, teaching, and mentoring?
  • Has your advisor worked with undergraduates in the past?
  • What is your advisor’s preferred communications style? Is it attractive to you? Are you comfortable with it?
  • How often does your advisor expect you to communicate with him/her on a weekly basis?
  • Will your advisor be available on a regular basis to provide advice and assistance?
  • Does this person seem genuinely interested in you as a student?
  • What space, equipment, and instrumentation does he/she have available for your projects?
  • What is your advisor’s publication record with undergraduates?
  • Does your advisor take undergraduates to meetings to present their work? Does he/she provide support for these experiences?