Finding an advisor
Questions to ask your advisor
Advice for doing research

Finding an advisor

Many professors have said that choosing the right advisor is the most important decision a graduate student can make, and is the single decision that has the most impact on your life over the course of grad school. It’s important to be careful in making your choice, and to strive to not just be comfortable with your pick, but to be excited about working with your advisor.

Students would benefit from knowing their own research interests and having a sense of their working styles and who they get along with. Some questions to consider are: which topics do you like to think about, would you like your research to be more applied or more theoretical, and how would you like to balance your workload between math and coding? Throughout their first year, they are encouraged to speak with professors both to build relationships and to find out what topics are being researched here. Professors can work on any problem they want, so it may be worthwhile to ask why they are working on a particular question. Students should also get a sense of their preferences based on how they felt about the first year courses. However, the real process starts at the beginning of the 2nd year of the PhD program, soon after taking CWE’s, PhD students are encouraged to meet widely with professors in the department, other departments, or even other schools.

Students should visit professors’ websites and look through their publication lists to get a sense of each professor’s research interests. Try to pick a couple of papers from each professor you want to meet with. If the title of a paper intrigues you, go try to read it, although you also may want to focus on more recent papers. You don’t need to understand every point, but should get a general sense of the problem, why the idea is novel, some context within the broader topic, and what kinds of tools are being used to solve the problem. Each of these things should contribute to your sense of how much interest you’ll have in conducting research with that professor.

Students should email professors to set up a meeting. This email should consist of: introducing yourself and that you’re interested in meeting about looking for a potential advisor, stating your research interests (if known), offering times you are available to meet, and asking if there is a way you should prepare for the meeting (such as by reading particular papers).  You can try to set up as many meetings as you feel will be useful to you.

The first meeting with a professor is relatively simple, just a conversation about their research program, problems they’re interested in solving, and figuring out where you and your interests might fit into all of that. It’s incredibly important to see if you get along on a personal level with this person in this setting, as you will have to spend a lot of time working with whoever you choose. For whatever reason,  some people just aren’t a great match in a working relationship, and sometimes you just have to trust your gut. You should also take the opportunity to ask questions about the mechanics of the advisor – advisee relationship with that professor such as:

How often will we meet and in what context?

How should I expect to get funding?

How much latitude will I get to pursue my own projects?

Are there additional classes I should take to do this kind of research?

Will we be collaborating with others, and if so, how?

What should I expect to be doing this semester?

Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions, or even to air some of your reservations. Professors may be more willing to accommodate you than you realize. Obviously, don’t be a jerk. Each person has different goals, though, so don’t hesitate to ask any questions that you find important.

If the meeting goes well, you can set up another meeting with that professor. In the meantime, you can speak to their current students and ask how their advising is going. Each professor seems to have a particular advising style, so their students may be your best resource. You may even want to ask their students’ friends. Also, you can have multiple meetings with multiple professors. Professors go through this process every year, understand making this decision can be difficult, and want to support you in making the best possible decision for you. However, don’t keep stringing along potential advisors if you know you won’t be working with them.

One strange difficulty with choosing an advisor is having to choose between good options. Sometimes a student is presented with two really cool projects, and they just need to consider which one they like better. Ultimately, nobody can tell you which topic is more interesting, who you’d like working with more, or what kind of problems you want to solve. It can get even trickier when one project is better along one dimension, but a second project is better along another dimension. While it can be stressful to have to make hard choices, it can also be rewarding to understand yourself and what you value. If you’re still really interested in multiple projects, many people in our department choose to have two advisors.

Some people feel like they need to choose an advisor as soon as possible. It’s probably better to take your time and really consider who would be your best choice, and find the person who best suits your needs. You’ll be working with this person for 4 years, so a 2 week head start isn’t really much of an advantage. In practice, most people take somewhere between a month and a semester to choose their advisor.

As a rule, students must have at least one advisor be a “core faculty member” of the STOR department. However, sometimes this advisor is just necessary to sign off on progress, while the other advisor does most of the work. In general, the department has been pretty flexible and encouraging to students who work in interdisciplinary areas. The department would also be happy to see students take advantage of all the resources within the department and find some fascinating problems working across statistics and operations research.

Here’s some more general advice about finding an advisor. 

Questions to ask your advisor each semester

When working deep in the weeds on a very technical subject, one can get lost in details and miss the big picture. Additionally, individual students sometimes need particular guidance for their questions, and sometimes ask the kinds of questions that otherwise wonderful resources like student run websites can’t answer.  For this reason, we recommend each student spend one meeting towards the end of each semester doing research to ask their advisor some bigger picture questions. Consider this a checklist to ensure that you’re on track. Usually there aren’t many issues, but it can be helpful to identify potential problems before they begin to cause serious trouble. Some questions can be:

How am I doing?

Am I on track to graduate?

What goals should I be focusing on in the near term and the long term?

Are there any skills I should be trying to work on?

Do I have certain weaknesses I need to fix?

What are our longer term goals for this research?

Where does my research fit into the broader field?

How can we work together better?

These may seem like intense questions, but advisors know you’re here to learn and are doing everything you can to become a great researcher. Honest and constructive feedback can be useful, and can improve everyone’s experience. Ideally, by creating a formal space where these questions can be asked and answered, we can try to provide a context where both parties understand the purpose of the conversation and can work on improving the research process, without letting other issues get in the way.  Students should likely ask themselves these questions as well towards the end of each semester, as it offers them an opportunity to meditate on progress made so far, while allowing them to step back and make changes that can improve the process even more going forward.

Advice on doing research

Figuring out how to actually do research is the main goal of a PhD program. There is no single route, as different students have different styles, interests, and strengths, on top of the fact that research itself is often unpredictable. Professors have made it clear that they do not have a single prescription for doing great research, and the underlying problem of figuring out this process is a personal journey. So to be clear, just reading the following links and taking their advice will not make you a great researcher overnight. But research is a collection of different skills, and so hopefully you can get some tips about different aspects of the research process from some of the following links.

Doing statistical research 

Lecture from NC State giving context around publications in statistics journals. Here’s a link to the full class

Doing first-class research

Writing a paper 

How to write a great science paper

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