The GWiSE Guide to Finding a Research Group

A stack of textbooks over a white background.

As an undergraduate, you go for the school. As a graduate, you go for the research. Selecting an advisor for your thesis quickly becomes the most important task you have in graduate school, not just for your research, but also for your personal happiness. In short, the best tip I have is: DO. YOUR. RESEARCH.

Oftentimes, you will meet with an advisor either on a visit or once you are at the school, to discuss the possibility of you joining their research group. Like a job interview, the better prepared you are going into it, the better you’ll be able to ask useful questions and get the answers you need. Remember, you are interviewing them just as much as they are interviewing you. Finding a group where you can be happy and do the work you are interested in, can be the difference between a stellar graduate experience and – worst case scenario – dropping out due to a bad work environment. Hey, it’s ok, if you get to graduate school and figure out a masters with thesis or a doctorate isn’t the right path for you. Veni, vidi, didici, I came, I saw, I learned – right? Regardless of whether you are a final-year undergraduate or a first-year graduate, thinking about how you will find an advisor will give you peace of mind in many long interviews and, in the end, increase your chances of finding the one that’s right for you.

First things first… What do you want?

People don’t go to graduate school because record-breaking work weeks and eating raman until your body starts to fall apart sounds fun. Skills, a degree, and connections are largely what you’re there for, all of which directly translate into your career. Thus, knowing what you want to do in the long run will ultimately be important when deciding on a research group. Bonus tip: knowing that you don’t know is fine too. Take it as an indicator that you are still in need of exploratory options – something you can look for in a group, university, or program. The following questions will help you figure out what is important to you and what you need to look for in a research group and advisor.

Do you want to drive the creation of your own project or would you rather be assigned a project to work on?
Starting from absolutely nothing is difficult and not all that common. If you have ideas of your own, you’ll need to find a group willing to sponsor those ideas. If you’re not quite sure, then it’s important that your advisor is prepared to get you started.

Besides the research and thesis, do you have any side goals that you’d like to accomplish? For example, do you want to experience teaching or writing grants? Get involved in science communication or politics?
Every group has its own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to ‘extracurriculars’ so to say. If you really want to teach but choose a group with a lot of industry connections and no focus on teaching, your chances of reaching that goal become slimmer.

What kind of group dynamic do you work best in/are looking for?
Do you want a close mentor-mentee relationship or one a little more distant? I’ve been told by multiple independent parties to pick your advisor with more care than you would pick your spouse. This has varying degrees of truth depending on how closely you will work with your advisor. Ultimately, you want someone you can respect and trust because they will be making a lot of decisions that affect your life and career.

On the same thread, do you want a close-knit group of fellow graduate students and post-docs?
Whether you want to have monthly cookouts or only see them during working hours, give some thought to what you expect your relationship(s) to be. Graduate school tends to have a unique mix of close friendships and heightened professionalism. Neither way is better, it’s just what works for you, but knowing what you are interested in helps you find like-minded people.

And are any of these absolutely necessary for you, or would you be willing to compromise?
I.e. is the the super close mentor-mentee relationship the most important thing to you or would you rethink it for an opportunity that puts you closer to your end goals.

It is very unlikely you find someone that *perfectly* aligns with your wants and needs, but giving some thought to who you are as a person and what you want, will help you find what you are looking for.

Next … Do your research.

Now that you know more about yourself, it’s time to take a closer look at any potential advisors you are interested in before you actually meet them. Showing up prepared for the interview will impress them, convey genuine interest in their group, and help you squeeze a little more information out of them. As you start to look closer at an advisor and their group, take notes of the questions you have in addition to the ones I have listed below.

Laptop with phone, pen and paper set our, ready to take notes.
Start with their research group page(s).

Figure out the size of the group and, if you can, the average size of the group over the years. That will help you determine if they are looking for students. Some groups will straight up post that they have a position open, but updating that website is probably way down on their list of important things to do. Next, look at who their students are and see if you fit the bill. Maybe they only take international students or post-docs or students from major universities. Either way, you’ll be able to gauge your chances of joining. After determining who’s there, find out who was there. If you’re lucky, they will have a list of their alumni and possibly where they are now. If not, use Google Scholar (but more on that later). Are their alumni doing things that you would be interested in doing as a career? These alums can turn into valuable connections down the road and they serve to mark out the possible futures you can have. If none of them are even remotely doing what you would call interesting science, then maybe don’t spend time interviewing that group. If they are of interest, take some notes so you can ask the potential advisor how so-and-so got where they are now.

After learning what you can from their page, move onto a search engine like Google Scholar and try to find their profile or their students profiles.

Look at how many papers they have put out per year (Google Scholar does this for you) and if there are any trends in the data like increasing/decreasing/fluctuations. This can happen for a variety of reasons but now you know and can possible figure out why. Maybe they lost or gained funding or even research students. I do not advise you to ask them directly about this. Instead, use it as a metric to judge the health and longevity of their research. Next, focus on their current student profiles. By looking at older students, you can determine the approximate number of publications you can earn by the time you defend. Especially if this value will help you get a job. If you are interested in a certain topic, look at related publications and write down who is the first and contributing authors. This tells you about any potential collaborations they have and if you meet with their students, you can talk to them directly about the paper.

If you’ve never researched a group before, it can be a little daunting and confusing. Therefore I recommend approaching the task like you would any a presentation or report. Almost as if you are going to present to someone. It’ll encourage you to do in depth work and organize your thoughts, ultimately making you better prepared for the interview as well. Which of course will make you more confident.

Research = Preparedness = Confidence.

At the Interview – What to ask the Advisor

Once you get to the school and to the interview, you’ll meet everyone from the coordinator to the professors to the tired, tired graduate students. They’ll question you, you’ll question them and hopefully you will be the much better prepared one and start thanking past you for doing so much work ahead of time. To help you with all that work, I’ve asked fellow graduate students for what questions to ask based on their personal experiences. Use these in addition to your own to impress professors with your forethought and insight.

Do you have set work hours for your graduate students or do you have a total hours per week that you like graduate students to work? Is there a set number of days off per year and does this include holidays? Do I need to let you know if I’m not going to be in/late?
Research is just like a job except there isn’t a huge document telling you what you can and cannot do (A lot of time there is but everyone ignores it). This is one of the most basic questions a lot of students will forget to ask but is something you definitely need to know. If you aren’t one for strict hours and only like to come in when the research spirit moves you, certain groups will not tolerate that at all. Again, there’s nothing wrong or right, but you need to know what you are getting into and figure out if you are prepared to meet the standards they set.

If my work allows me to work remotely, is that allowed?
Tying in to the first question, you should know what is expected of you. This question won’t apply to everyone, but if you use a computer for your research frequently, it’s good to know that you can do so wherever you want.

How often are you available when and if I need questions answered (and how are you available), and if you’re gone a lot do you check emails often?
This ties into how closely you work with the advisor. If you want hands-on, they need to be available. If you like to figure things out on your own then you might not mind having an advisor who travels a little more.

You can also ask how hands on or off they are but this question is so vague that I question it’s worth. It’s definitely important to know, but your best course of action will be asking for examples of how they are hands on/off. Examples include “Do you like it when your students take control of a project and only come to you when they’re stuck? Do you want them to constantly (daily/weekly/etc.) check in?”

Will my thesis be assigned or self-determined? Will my thesis be a culmination of projects, or one specific project?

What the research is will play a big part in this but also how an advisor runs their group. Depending on what you are interested in studying, this answer can vary a lot, but definitely notice the differences between different advisor’s answers.

As an engineer, you’ll do more learning and application based research and that means you are more likely to do many projects as your thesis.

Ali McCarthy, SBU

How often does the group meet to update each other on work? Do you do meetings as a group or smaller groupings?
Group updates are a good way to keep track of how the group is running and practice your presentation skills, preparing you for your defense and future job interviews. They also take a lot of time out of your work day or week. For some groups, their meetings last all afternoon but for others they are done in almost no time. Knowing ahead of time will help you gauge your future reaction to the meetings.

How long does it take for students to graduate typically? What is your criteria for determining that a student is ready to defend?
Depending on your field, this answer will vary. A lot. This is also something you can get a gauge for a head of time by looking up how long it took for others in your field and from your school. If the advisor’s answer is different from what your research tells you, ask why. “Do you want students here for a certain number of years? Until they get a certain number of first author papers? Until they finish their specific project?” Then ask yourself if its reasonable and you are prepared to do it.

How important do you think graduate school classes are? Do you want students to do their best possible, or do you want them to be able to focus on research more?
This question will also get a variety of answers depending on the school and the professor. Some don’t think classes matter as much in grad school. Some want you to get straight A’s for fellowships and awards. Finding an advisor that feels the same as you about this question will help keep both of you happy.

Follow up with asking if you are allowed to prioritize homework over research. Some students have to research all day long and then spend half the night on homework. Again, knowing ahead of time helps you find out if your goals are the same as your advisors.

What are your former students doing now? How can your group help me X (get a job in industry, get a position as a tenure track professor, etc.)?
You can look this up ahead of time, but hearing how a potential advisor will help you reach your long term goals is always a good idea. It will also help you figure out how much the advisor had to do with that student’s successes.

Last but not least,

Can you fund me for the duration of my graduate career? Followed by ‘Will I be expected to secure grants for my funding?’
All your work will be for naught if they cannot in fact, pay you to do research. Even if this was answered on their website, you need to check for this in person because, as I said, keeping their site up to date probably doesn’t make the top 50 of important things they need to do. As for the follow up question, if the advisor is paying the program and the program is paying you, that answer should be NO. While every cent helps (New Year, New Funding), you need someone who can fund you.

At the Interview – What to ask the Students

Don’t forget about the graduate students as well! If you are lucky, you’ll be able to more than just meet them. By asking similar questions to the ones you would ask the advisors, you’ll get different perspectives and better understand the group. Remember that their answers are colored by their personalities and what you are ok with will not necessarily be what they are ok with. Someone might not like having a super structured group, but if you know you work better with structure then consider that as well. Take their responses and what you have learned about them and try to figure out what is really going on and how you would react to it. Also talk to graduate students from other groups about the advisors you are interested in. They’re more likely to speak freely with you about how that advisor is perceived by the department.

What do you want to do once you graduate? How can this group help you with that?
Use this to potentially see future job options. You may be interested in a variety of paths or have a very specific goal and where the students already in this group are headed helps you figure out where you’ll be in a couple of years. These people will also be a part of your future connections, meaning that you want them to be in a field of interest to you, thereby paving the way to your future career.

Do you plan on doing a postdoc in this group? Why?
This can help you judge how happy students are in the group without asking them directly. Keep in mind that there are other reasons why they may not stick around so be sure to ask follow up questions.

A group of men and women sitting around a table, in discussion.

What’s the office/lab environment like?
Are students/postdocs willing to help each other out?
Are there small comforts available, like coffee or tea, a fridge, etc.?

This shows if people are willing to stick around and are comfortable doing what they like while getting their work done. Depending on the work environment, some of these aren’t an option, but a “well lived in” vibe generally feels more comfortable than a ‘sterile’ environment.

I have a friend who comes to my building for coffee because we have a Kuerig. I want that little bit of comfort close by.

Ashley Cliff, UTK

What is the advisor’s opinion on how graduate students should be treated? I.e “In my day, grad students were expected to live in the lab and not have any personal time, so that’s what I’ll do with you”, or “I understand that everyone is human and if I overwork you, your quality of work and life will drop, so I’ll try not to do that.”
How you are treated will directly affect your happiness. Hopefully, the students will be honest with you and let you know if an advisor doesn’t care about your quality of life.

Are the advisors hands on or hands off?
Same as when asking the advisor themselves, ask for concrete examples.

Does the advisor encourage student suggestions and input?
Hopefully your advisor does. If not, they aren’t likely to encourage you to follow your own ideas and

What’s the workload like? Does the advisor expect an appropriate amount of work from each student? Does it increase as you get older?
Most likely more will be expected of you over time, but if an advisor finds the classes you take in your first year to be a waste of time, you may be staying up late just to get your homework done.

What is the group dynamic? Do all/most of you hang out outside of work? Is it more like a job?
Going back to what your personal desires are, questions like this one will help you figure out what to expect from a certain group. Whatever their answers are, there are upsides to any situations.

Parting Message

By now you probably have a pretty sizable list of questions. If not, here are some more articles to read to help you flesh them out even more.

I recommend grouping them together by topic, ranking their importance, and then writing them out in a journal or notebook to bring with you to the interview. Make sure to leave space between the questions so you can fill in the answers either during the interview or afterwards when everything is still fresh. Don’t stop with the questions you bring! Follow up by asking for examples. You’ll learn way more from a story and be able to pick up on the subtle nuances of the group dynamic. One great part about graduate schools is that they want you to fit in their group because you’ll work harder and better if you’re happy. That said, people struggle at being objective. Our experiences are colored by our past and how we view the world, making every answer skewed by their viewpoint. By asking for examples, you’ll have have a better chance of determining how you would react. Take it a step farther and ask multiple group members (separately) about the same story to get different people’s points of view. Ask graduate students in your potential department but outside the group you are interested in.

I’ll leave you with one final thought: there are a lot of factors that go into selecting a group, most of which you have no control over. So don’t stress. You’ll do the best you can, they’ll do the best they can, and it will all work out it the end.

Happy Hunting!


Author: sbugwise

We are the Graduate Women in Science and Engineering group at Stony Brook University and we are dedicated to supporting women in STEM fields.

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