Finding a Graduate Advisor

This is a question for either of you to answer. Over the course of my last year in school I’ve had the most difficult time finding out how to go about seeking potential (M.S.) advisors for graduate school. Like, I’ve tried looking at schools I would like to go to, and looking at researchers there, but I have had little success in making conclusions when my interests are wide-spread. So, how the hell do I narrow down my interests, and what is a (possibly) better way of finding and approaching potential advisors? I am (mentally) paralyzed.


Thanks, freshlypluckedscientist, for the awesome post request! First off, it’s going to be ok! You are not the only one who has felt like this! I’m also fairly certain that we are not the only two who have felt like this! Rachel and I have both gone through this process twice (M.S. and PhD) and we understand how difficult and frustrating the entire process can be. Both times I tried to get a head start on the process and both times I felt like I was always behind schedule and running out of time! Before I even get started on any suggestions or tips, I’d like to reassure you that it’s completely ok to take a year off to figure things out and generally just chill. I took a year off after undergrad and nearly 2 years off after finishing my M.S. degree. I’m now going to be a few years older than the rest of my cohort, but I am going back fresh and excited and motivated!  Like so many big life decisions, you just have to do you.   


If you are looking for any sort of biological research program it can be nearly impossible to sift through departmental websites of universities you are interested in to find potential advisors. Yes, lots of them keep up-to-date websites with a convenient section for Potential Students, but many others do not. When I was looking for M.S. advisors I focused my search by perusing the EcoLog listserve and Texas A&M Job Board. You can keep an eye out for posts by advisors advertizing available positions instead of having to seek them out yourself. One plus to seeking an advisor in this way, if they are posting on a listserve or job board, they likely already have a project with some sort of funding available.  Keep an open mind and cast a wide net when you are finding potential advisors. Here is where you can let your varying interests guide you. Once you contact someone you can start to narrow your interests a bit.  Also, there is nothing wrong with narrowing your search based on where you actually want to live for the next few years of your life.  I know when Rachel was looking for graduate programs, she knew she wanted to live near the coast.  This initial choice actually lead her to studying tidal marshes (which she loves!) as opposed to the many other inland types of wetlands.

NMSU was a great place for my MS.

Write a basic cover letter and then customize it for each professor to whom you send it. Basically, you need to write a short introduction of yourself highlighting your best attributes and attach your CV and any other pertinent information they may have requested. I am working on a cover letter post for spottedsharkheart currently so more to come on the intricacies of that! If they reply, gauge their interest and try and set-up a time to have a phone or skype conversation to discuss your mutual interests. Not everyone is going to write back. Professors have a packed schedule and they are probably receiving many similar emails. Don’t be afraid to send a follow-up email reminding them of your inquiry. You can send more than one follow-up if you are extremely interested in working with an individual, but keep in mind that if they are too busy to reply to your email, they might not be a super good fit anyhow.  During this search and email phase, don’t be afraid to explore options outside of your comfort zone. My background is biology, and come fall I am entering a PhD program in Statistics. Granted, I hope to find research where I can apply my developing skill-set in stats to ecological problems, but you never know where your path may lead.


Once you are in contact with a potential advisor, this is the time when you need to show that you have focused interests that mesh well with their own, but keep in mind that you aren’t locked into anything you discuss initially. This also applies to those pesky essays you might need to write during the application process. I had the hardest time with these and Rachel had to tell me multiple times that I am not going to be contractually bound to anything I wrote in them! Narrowing your interests is a tough one. I honestly don’t know how to go about doing this particularly well. You can peruse MS Grad listings on to see what pops out at you. You may also want to consider specializing in a skill that can be applied to many different situations (GIS, Stats, etc) so you will be able to work in many different fields.  Having various interests also likely means you could be happy doing several different things!  There is nothing wrong with that, and it actually increases your odds of finding a cool graduate program that speaks to at least some of your passions.


Don’t let letdowns get you down. I had a rough time when searching for PhD programs. Sometimes, they just don’t ever respond. Sometimes, they responded a few times and then…..nothing?! Other times, you get as far as a skype conversation with a professor only to find out that it does not appear to be a good fit. It’s a little late in the year currently to find an advisor and join a program (not impossible). Ask current professors on your campus for help.They have been through this during their education and they have helped countless others through the same process.


Anyone else have amazing advice about applying to graduate programs?  I would love to hear about it in the comments sections.  It would be amazing to make this post a resource to refer others to in the future!  
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