How to Choose a Thesis Advisor

Michael C. Loui
Associate Dean of the Graduate College
Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering
February 5, 1997
Revised January 24, 2004

Choosing a thesis advisor is the most important decision of your life--perhaps more important than choosing a spouse--because your choice affects everything you will do in your career. Indeed, choosing an advisor is similar to getting married: it is making a long-term commitment. Unlike marriage, however, a good advising relationship should end successfully within a few years. Also, unlike husband and wife, the advisor and student do not start as equals. At first, the relationship is essentially an apprenticeship. But although you start as an apprentice, ideally, you should end as a colleague.

As you consider which professor might serve as an advisor, you should first formulate your goals in undertaking thesis research. A thesis demonstrates your ability to make an original, significant contribution to the corpus of human knowledge. Through your thesis project, you develop skills useful in any career: critical reading of the scholarly or scientific literature, formulation and solution of a problem, clear written and oral communication of the results. Furthermore, you learn the practices of a particular scholarly community: theoretical frameworks and experimental paradigms, publication processes, and standards of professional behavior. You learn how to present a paper at a seminar or a conference, and how to give and receive criticism.

You should seek a thesis advisor who can help you meet your goals, and whose working style is compatible with yours. Here are some specific steps that you can take to find an advisor.

Take a course with a potential advisor, possibly individual study. In an individual study course, you can learn about the professor's working style, with a limited, one semester commitment between you and the professor. The individual study course might involve directed reading, with the goal of producing a survey article that could serve as the basis for a thesis. Or the individual study course might involve a small project in the professor's laboratory.

Ask for copies of grant proposals that describe research projects of possible interest to you. A grant proposal states research problems, explains the importance of the problems in the context of other research, and describes recent progress, including the professor's contributions. Usually, a proposal includes references to journal articles and books that you can look up. You do not need the budget part of the proposal, which contains confidential information about salaries.

Consider working with two advisors. If you are interested in an interdisciplinary project, then you could engage two official advisors, one in each discipline. Even if you choose only one official advisor, you may occasionally seek advice from a second professor, who can provide an alternate perspective. Some departments institutionalize this practice by requiring that the chair of a doctoral committee be different from the thesis advisor. Discuss these arrangements with both professors openly, to minimize possible misunderstandings about each professor's role.

Interview a potential advisor. Before the interview, read some articles written by the professor so that you can ask intelligent questions about the professor's research interests. Prepare several questions such as the following.

What are the professor's standards and expectations for the quality of the thesis, such as the overall length? Will the professor help formulate the research topic?

How quickly will the professor review drafts of manuscripts? Will the professor help you improve writing and speaking skills? Will the professor encourage publication of your work?

Will the professor provide equipment and materials? Will the professor obtain financial support such as funds to travel to conferences or research assistantships? Will the professor help you find appropriate employment? Where have former students gone?

What will your responsibilities be? Will you write proposals or make presentations to research sponsors?

How frequently will you meet with the professor? The most common problem in the humanities and social sciences is insufficiently frequent contact with the advisor. I meet with each of my own thesis students individually for one hour each week, in addition to a weekly group meeting.

What are the obligations to the project funding source? How frequently are reports required? Are deliverables promised? Could publications be delayed by a patent filing? Are there potential conflicts of interest?

How will decisions on co-authorship of papers be made? In engineering and natural sciences, co-authorship is common, but practices vary by discipline. Sometimes, the advisor's name always goes last. Sometimes, the order of names is alphabetical. Sometimes, the first author is the person whose contribution was greatest.

Interview former students. Students who have graduated are more likely to answer your questions candidly than current students. Ask a potential advisor for names and e-mail addresses of former students, whom you can contact.

Was a former student's project unnecessarily prolonged? Did anyone not finish? Why not? Many projects suffer unanticipated delays. Occasionally, for various reasons--not always the advisor's fault--students do not finish theses and dissertations.

How were conflicts resolved? When you work closely with someone else, disagreements are inevitable. The key question is whether conflicts were handled respectfully, with satisfactory resolutions.

If you have a major conflict with your advisor, first attempt to find solutions within you department, consulting another trusted professor, other members of your committee, or the department head. Should you be unable to find a solution by working with people in your department, be assured that we in the Graduate College are available to help mediate conflicts. Fortunately, major conflicts are rare. It is most likely that you will enjoy a successful, intellectually satisfying thesis project.