How do you narrow down an advisor for a PhD?

Answer by Rishabh Jain:

You should maximize for only one trait: Being able to learn a ton from them.
If you can spend your PhD constantly learning from your advisor you will leave you PhD a MUCH better researcher than when you started, that is success. Here is what maximizing for learning implies, and why you can use this simple criteria:
1) They work in a field you are interested in: If you weren't interested at all, you would learn little since you wouldn't care enough to learn from them. Similarly, if outside your core areas, it is possible you don't know enough of the fundamentals to truly learn a lot.
2) You have excellent communication with them: Communication is a must for effective learning. This includes have a good working relationship and being able to converse on a similar enough wavelength that they can effectively teach you.
3) They have something to teach you in every respect: If you optimize for learning over the duration of your PhD, that should imply that they can not only teach you how to do research (scientifically), but also how to write grants, present, run a group, etc. Most people will take the full 5 years to learn these things really really well.
4) You are hungry: Finally, the last obvious point is if you believe you can learn a lot from them, it means you are hungry. That hunger really should be strong,especially in the first few years where output is low, and your measurement for success really should be how much you are growing a researcher (i.e learning from your advisor).
The way I looked for someone I could learn a ton from, was to apply to a bunch of schools (8 in my case), and when I visited, I made sure I set up as many meetings as possible with professors in the department. I would gauge essentially one thing, when I'm in the room with them am I learning a ton from them? and could I be learning a ton over the 5 years? If there weren't at least 2 faculty I felt that way about in a given department, I decided I wouldn't go to that school. Essentially, I could not be so arrogant to assume any faculty would take me (which was really good, cause I was in fact turned down by my 1st choice advisor when I started grad school).
So the short if it is, a PhD is a training – optimize to get the most you can out of it's purpose – learning.
(the below graph should stay high, but for different aspects of research over time!)

How do you narrow down an advisor for a PhD?


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