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Kristan Russell

University of Nevada, Reno


Title: The Importance of Having the Right Advisor
Author: Kristan Russell – University of Nevada, Reno
Author Contact:
Keywords: mentoring, advisor, lessons learned

When applying to graduate programs you may be advised that “choosing the right advisor is just as important as choosing the right program.” However, four years into graduate school, I have discovered that choosing the right advisor is more complex than simply finding an advisor who has matching research interests.

The Match:  A research match is important. Aligned research interests may provide more opportunities for collaboration and publication, as the advisor will be personally invested in the research. Nevertheless, the “research match” is not the only factor that should be considered.

Rather, an advisor who matches your passion, drive, and working style might be a better fit than one who just matches your research interests. Some advisors will be willing to explore new areas with you and match your enthusiasm to broaden your knowledge and contribute to the research field.

The Support: As a graduate student, you will explore opportunities outside of research, such as applying to workshops, teaching, applying for grants and fellowships, and applying for jobs. Your advisor can be there for you every step of the way as a supportive mentor, recommendation letter writer, advisor, reference, and guide. Having an advisor who supports you in your academic and career goals will help you to succeed. Also, it is important to have an advisor who takes a personal interest in your progress within your program. You do not want an advisor who will let you fall through the cracks.

The Shoulder:  Being a shoulder to cry on is likely a role that many advisors never intended to have. There will be many successes throughout graduate school (e.g., first publication). You may prioritize school over other parts of your life. However, illnesses, break-ups, financial crises, and other real-life circumstances will happen during these years. An advisor that invests in your well-being will help you to push forward when possible but will also recognize when breaks are needed to recharge.

Advisors may also vary in self-reflection, availability, frequency of publication/research, engagement, funding, and level to which they help develop their students professionally. There is no one size fits all when it comes to matching advisors with graduate students. Research interests may match but personalities may clash. The advisor may run a tight ship, setting strict deadlines with a student who excels in a more flexible environment.

Graduate students must to be able to recognize when an advisor-advisee relationship is not working. You should know the options in your program for switching advisors (or finding alternate mentoring from faculty) when the fit is not right. You should also consider having a meeting with your advisor early-on to discuss expectations and how to resolve potential future issues.

We often overlook this relationship’s importance in the grand scheme of graduate school Recognize the importance of a positive advising relationship and make it a priority in your academic career. And of course, do your best to take these lessons you learn as an “advisee” into your career when you begin mentoring and advising others. 

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