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Choosing the right advisor and forming a successful working relationship

posted Jun 10, 2012 22:39:28 by
(Message forwarded by hungnv - The PDF file is available at:

From: Lam K. Huynh <>
Sent: Wednesday, 2 December 2009, 1:05
Subject: Our first experience-sharing article

Dear all,

Since almost two years ago, in an attempt to share our experience and learning from each other we have outlined several main issues that, we think, most of Vietnamese students are struggling during their graduate-school time in the US. We have been writing articles, incorporating our knowledge and experience, on these issues so that real academic and none-academic issues can be addressed with less effort. However, because we are all very tied up with our own responsibilities, it took us more time than we expected to finalize any article.

After months of on&off brainstorming, online discussing and writing, we would like to share with you the first version of the first article in the experience-sharing series: “Choosing the Right Advisor and Forming a Successful Working Relationship”. Although we did our best on this article, it certainly needs lots of improvements due to our limited knowledge and experience. For that reason, we would very appreciate your comments on the article and/or other related issues. Your feedback certainly will give us more opportunities as well as motivations to make it better.

Hai Dinh, Thi Dang & Lam Huynh

Lam K. Huynh
Colorado School of Mines
Chemical Engineering Department
343 Alderson Hall, Golden, CO 80401

(O) 303-384-2312 - (C) 801-635-7436
(F) 303-273-3730 -
[Last edited Jun 23, 2012 16:46:19]
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3 replies
Dung said Jun 23, 2012 18:17:08
Extracted from the article. Please download the full article from the link above.



1. Types of faculty positions
1.1. Assistant Professor
1.2. Associate Professor
1.3. Full Professor

2. Understanding yourself

3. How to identify potential advisors?
3.1. Technical issues
3.2. Working environment
3.3. Other issues
3.4. An ideal advisor

4. How to distinguish yourself as the strongest candidate?

5. How to develop an effective relationship with your advisor?
5.1. How to effectively work with your advisor
5.2. Case-by-case situations

6. Changing advisors

7. Acknowledgments

8. Definitions
8.1. Duties/tasks of a professor:

9. Useful materials

10. References
[Last edited Jun 23, 2012 18:43:59]
Dung said Jun 23, 2012 18:21:49

The time spent in graduate school is a fulfilling experience, but can at times be frustrating and boring. This may be especially so if you do not have several essential skills and strategies to effectively handle the various issues arising during graduate school. Your advisor probably is the most important factor in your success [1], thus two key issues that you face are:
(i) How to choose the right advisor in graduate school ,
(ii) How to develop an effective working relationship with your advisor.

This article is an attempt to summarize discussions of these issues available from multiple sources, and to present those aspects that we think are most vital. We have included discussions and tips from our own experiences. We hope that you will find this information useful during your graduate life.

This article has six sections. The first section discusses three main types of faculty in order to highlight the pros and cons of working with each. Section 2 helps identify your personality and your career goals. Section 3 discusses how to identify your potential advisor. Section 4 offers strategies on how to make you a strong candidate for the advisor of your choice. Section 5 provides tips for developing an effective relationship with your advisor. Section 6 addresses one final issue of how and when it may be a good idea to change your advisor.

In graduate school, a student probably has two types of advisors, namely academic and dissertation advisors. In this article, we would like to focus our discussion on the latter one. By definition, a dissertation advisor is a person with career experience willing to share his/her knowledge with his/her student in solving significant technical issues [2]. There are two main kinds of dissertation advisors:

• Official graduate advisor(s): The person who works with you to solve specific technical issues on a daily basis. Usually there is ONE advisor, sometimes two at most.
• Member(s) of the graduate advisory committee: Those who give you general advice and evaluate your work and effort. Usually there is more than one supervisor.

In this article, hereafter, we will use the word “advisor” to refer to the first type of dissertation advisors. We refer to the advisor as male for convenience and clarity in discussion only.
[Last edited Jun 23, 2012 18:30:36]
Dung said Jun 23, 2012 18:35:25
1. Types of faculty positions

When choosing the right advisor, you should be aware of the three distinct tenure-track faculty positions in academia: assistant, associate and full professors . Generally, a professor has three main responsibilities: (i) teaching, (ii) doing research and (iii) doing services (See Section 8.1 for more information about these duties). Non-tenure track faculty members , who are not officially eligible to advise graduate students, are not discussed here.

1.1. Assistant Professor

The entry-level position in academia is that of the assistant professor. The assistant-professor period usually lasts from 5 to 6 years . During this time, a new faculty member has to play a survival game in which he must show his ability to excel in the academic environment by fulfilling the three main duties as mentioned above. Whether he can survive in the academic environment is decided at the end of this stage. This period can be divided into 2 stages:
• Stage 1 or the so-called pink time (years 1-4): This is the easiest and the most exciting time for a faculty member because he receives much support from his department and university as well as from his colleagues, in terms of collaboration, funding, teaching and other related issues.
• Stage 2 or the real-life time (years 5-6): This is usually the most stressful time for an assistant professor. He has received much support and investment so far; thus, this is the “pay-back” time. He has to fulfill his potential and duties as a researcher and teacher (e.g., a number of publications, research recognition as well as participation in teaching and mentoring the students). Successfully doing so will result in the tenure grant in year 5 or 6. If not, it is likely that he has to move to a different place or get out of the academic environment.

Because of the nature of this position, there are pros and cons of working for an assistant professor:

• He is very active and hard-working in order to distinguish himself from others and become an independent scientist. This means that he may spend more time with you in almost every aspect. For example, when you give him your manuscripts, it is likely that you will get his feedback within several days. As a result, you may have more works published.
• He may be more familiar with recent technological/scientific/mathematical techniques and developments, thus you may have a better opportunity to expose yourself to different new and active research areas.

• If tenure is not granted to him, you will have to decide whether you want to move to another place with him or transfer to a different group or school, or end your program altogether.
• Typically, he has not fully developed his technical breadth and depth enough to be able to advise you on how to overcome all obstacles in solving difficult problems. Thus, your research projects may be less well-defined.
• Communication can sometimes be a very sensitive and complicated issue. Because he does not have a lot of experience in effectively dealing with students, colleagues, or collaborators, he may not be able to handle the stress the accompanies a professor trying to gain tenure and may transfer some of this stress to you.
• Since an assistant professor is highly motivated, he has higher expectations from you and will expect hard work (e.g., work on weekends).

1.2. Associate Professor

Normally, after getting tenure, the assistant professor will be promoted to Associate Professor. This means that his position at school is now secured, unless he does something very wrong. With less pressure at this stage, he may slow down a bit (e.g., spend more time with his family and his other interests) .

• An associate professor has more experience (than an assistant one) in doing research, as well as in dealing with students and colleagues; thus, things, in general, are done more effectively and productively.
• He has more flexibility to pursue novel research areas. If he is on the right track (e.g., retains the momentum from the previous stage and does not move on to heavy administrative work), this is certainly the most productive period in his career.

• He may be less active than assistant professors because his position has already been secured .
Note: If he remains at the associate rank for a long time (e.g., more than 5 years), it is possible that he may have become "burnt-out"; that is, he may have lost interest and motivation in doing research, or not be a significant player in his field. Therefore, it is rather risky to work for him.

1.3. Full Professor

If an associated professor continues to achieve in the areas of research and service , he will certainly be promoted to a full professor. A full professor is well-established in the research and teaching communities.

• Because he is very experienced in almost all aspects, his advice is very valuable.
• He has a long-term vision; thus your research projects are likely to be well-defined and significant.
• He has more power in departmental decisions, and therefore as his advisee you may have access to opportunities or an easier time obtaining those opportunities (e.g., TA positions, fellowships).
• He has more connections in academia and industry; thus it may be easier for you to find a good job through his connections.
• He has more experience in obtaining grants.

• Normally, he is the least active one (compared to the other two) due to less pressure and his satisfactory accomplishments; therefore, you have to drive yourself in order to make any significant progress.
• It is harder for you to make yourself stand out because your nice work is often credited to your well-known boss, rather than yourself (e.g., “your boss’s name and coworkers” instead of “your name and coworkers”).
• Sometimes his expertise is in the fields that are not "hot" anymore (possibly because they are old and well-established); thus they may receive less attention as well as funding. This means that there may be fewer opportunities in the job market for you later. In addition, he has a flatter learning curve, and tends to be more conservative to new advancements.
• He may have less time for you because he probably has more students and other interests to take care of.
Note: Endowed professors (e.g., Arthur F. Thurnau Professor) are also classified as full professors.
[Last edited Jun 23, 2012 18:36:36]
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