Reader Q&A: choosing your advisor and topic

In today’s post I’m answering some questions from readers of this blog, on choosing an advisor and research topics. As a caveat, for me both things just “happened” so I am not the best person to give advice, but I did think of some tips that could be useful.

1. How to choose your advisor?

I think the lab where you will do your PhD is the most important factor for choosing a particular position. A large part of this is the advisor, but also the general atmosphere in the lab. That being said, it can be difficult to figure these things out in advance, if you are not already familiar with the lab. Nevertheless, there are a couple of things you can do:

  • Do people in the lab have social media accounts? The absense of social media probably doesn’t tell you much, but if one or more people have accounts perhaps you can learn a bit about the lab culture.
  • Look at publications lists – do the students get a chance to publish? Are there publications with multiple students, indicating more collaborations in the lab? Do students publish on their own topics, or only extend the work of the advisor?
  • Look at videos or slides from the advisor’s talks, if you can find any – do they credit their trainees for the work?
  • Get in touch with current or former trainees of the advisor – how is/was their experience in the lab?
  • Ask questions during the interview – what are the expectations of students in the lab? Are there any group meetings (such as a journal club) or other lab activities?

2. How to choose a research topic?

In the Netherlands (and several other countries in Europe) the topic will already be somewhat defined when you start a project. However, within that topic you should still have freedom to explore different questions. Here are some things that worked for me:

  • Just start somewhere. Read papers and implement them, and be critical about what you see. Are there some limitations, for example datasets that would not be suitable for the method?
  • Start writing as soon as possible, for example your thoughts about the papers you read. Are there any trends you start noticing?
  • Talk to others, both within and outside your field. Explaining research to others can often bring you to new thoughts
  • Ask yourself, “Am I building another hammer instead of investigating whether the problem is a nail?”
  • Ask yourself, “If my work was going to change a sentence in a textbook, what would that textbook/sentence be?” (Paraphrased from talk by Robert Williamson)

As with everything on this blog, my final piece of advice is – don’t stop here, but search for more different people giving different types of advice. If you know of a great blog post, or have your own advice to share, please comment below!

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