How to Choose a PhD Advisor

Picking a good PhD advisor is not easy. One of the reasons why it’s not is that it’s not always your decision to make.

In this article, I’ll describe:

  • Who or what is a PhD advisor
  • The process of picking a PhD advisor
  • The dos and don’ts of picking a PhD advisor
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Photo by Pierre Chatel Innocenti Unsplash

Who or what is a Ph.D. advisor

The PhD advisor is the Ph.D. student’s dissertation chair. The dissertation is the research project that culminates the student’s years of study. To help the students start and complete the dissertation, there needs to be a dissertation team made up of at least 3 PhD advisors. The main advisor is called the dissertation chair. The rest of the team is made up of advisors who help with other parts of the dissertation project. In many programs, the dissertation chair or PhD advisor has the rank of full professor.

The process of picking or choosing a Ph.D. advisor

In some Ph.D. programs, you may not have the actual option to pick an advisor. On paper, it may look like you do, but with the way the program works, you may not. For example, if you came into the program based on funding from a grant held by a professor, you are tied to that professor and they become your advisor till you no longer receive funding from their grant.

On the other hand, the norm for choosing an advisor is thus. You start in the program and you are assigned as a research assistant (RA) to a professor. The professor works with you to figure out your research interest and help you hone your interest. They can also advise you away from that interest if they believe that it’s a dead end and would have little traction in the field. In the event that the student does not have a specific interest, the student can work with the professor on the professor’s project. I’ve found the latter to be the case more often than not.

The Ph.D. student does this RA work for 4 semesters during their 2 year coursework period, with different professors. Within the 2 years, the student should be able to tell which of the professors they like, based on several factors including the professor’s productivity, their chemistry, their attitudes, etc. As a student, you need to pay special attention to some of these factors because (I kid you not), each factor becomes accentuated when issues arise. For example, a professor who is challenged with being productive ordinarily becomes even less productive at the slightest problem. A professor who has a bad attitude becomes even worse with the slightest provocation. However, the opposite is the case. So, choose wisely!

The Dos and Don’ts of Picking a PhD Advisor

  • Do seek advice from students who’ve been there longer than you. Ask them to tell you about their experiences with the professors. This is key to avoiding a deeply frustrating 2-year period. Because some students do not want to be perceived as a gossip, they may veil their responses. So it’s up to you to read between the lines and figure out the rest.
  • Do Listen to students who’ve been there longer than you. Don’t think that your case may be different for any reason (e.g., because you feel you are smarter, more intelligent, or have more experience than other students).
  • Don’t make any promises to any professors that they’ll be your advisor. Rather reach out to prospective professors with your dissertation ideas(e.g., an abstract, theory, methodology) and ask how they might help you if you were to choose that project as your dissertation. In this way, you shop around for the advisor who shows genuine interest in you and your dissertation idea.
  • Do make sure that The potential advisor is a full professor. An associate or assistant professor can be a member of the dissertation team but not the chair. A full professor can protect you. An associate or assistant professor still needs the support of others for promotion. So their power to protect you from undue influence may be constrained.
  • Do ensure the potential advisor gets along with the other members of the dissertation team. You don’t want a tug of war between the members at your expense. This would delay your work and may put you behind.
  • Do ask potential dissertation advisors if they would stay for the duration of your dissertation or whether they are looking to retire. Listen carefully to their response and body language. Having an advisor retire or move to another school can wreak havoc on your schedule, potentially delaying your completion by a year. Why? Your advisor must be a member of the current school: so when they leave for any reason, you are transferred to another chair who may not know much about your research.
  • Do make sure that the advisor knows your subject area, which means they will be able to provide help to you. There’s no sense in having an advisor who specializes in knowledge sharing and open-source software when your research topic is on behavioral security.


Choose wisely if you have the option to choose your PhD advisor. Listen to other students and believe some of what they tell you. Listen to the veiled responses. Choose someone versed in your subject matter.

How to Choose a PhD Advisor

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