Why the Right Adviser Makes all the Difference

March 7, 2011 § 3 Comments

A good adviser can lead to great career opportunities

Yes, “adviser” is spelled with an ‘e’. Look  it up. Until then, let’s start today’s post with a joke:

A grad student, a post-doc, and a professor are walking through a city park and they find an antique oil lamp.  They rub it and a Genie comes out in a puff of smoke.

The Genie says, “I usually only grant three wishes, so I’ll give each of you just one.”

“Me first!  Me first!” says the grad student.  “I want to be in the Bahamas, driving a speedboat with a gorgeous woman who sunbathes topless.”  Poof!  He’s gone.

“Me next!  Me next!” says the post-doc.  “I want to be in Hawaii, relaxing on the beach with a professional hula dancer on one side and a Mai Tai on the other.”  Poof!  He’s gone.

“You’re next,” the Genie says to the professor.

The professor says, “I want those guys back in the lab after lunch.”

It may seem like all professors and advisers want out their junior scientists is work, work, and more work. But developing the adviser/advisee relationship is important to the careers of both parties. Jane F. Reckelhoff, Ph.D. of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, explains several ways in which an adviser can be beneficial. For junior scientists, an adviser should be someone who can guide you through starting up your first laboratory, writing your first independent federal or foundation grant proposals, or learning what is expected of you in an industry position. Senior scientists could also utilize the mentoring of an adviser as well, providing advice for advice on how to be the head of a study section, a journal editor, president of a university, or CEO of a pharmaceutical company. Both junior and senior scientists will find that an adviser can also serve as an excellent reference, vouching for you in academic societies and scientific associations.

The American Association of Universities recommends that “students must be directed by experienced scientists. The director should supervise, teach, and encourage in-depth scrutiny and interpretation of results, emphasizing respect for primary data. Routine audit and review of all primary data by the laboratory director is strongly recommended. It is inadvisable for the director to delegate these important functions.”

What makes a good (or bad) adviser?

Marshall Lev Dermer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, offers important factors to consider when choosing an adviser. As a whole, it’s vital to choose someone who will be there, physically and mentally, to develop that adviser/advisee relationship. But here are the folks who will NOT make a good adviser:

Grant Swingers and Research Millers: Do not equate grant support or the size of an institute or research laboratory with quality. Even without grant support, publishing may become more important than doing science when faculty salaries are determined merely by the number of publications. Avoid faculty who submit many short reports in which replication of findings is absent.

Those Not at the Bench: Avoid faculty who structure research so that there are multiple layers of authority and who are rarely at the laboratory “bench.” I could not find any studies of the supervision of research but often “the professional message to students and colleagues is that intellectual responsibility and seniority is tantamount to removal from the tedium of data collection.”

The Perpetual Administrator: Avoid faculty who repeatedly choose to be officers of professional societies, departmental chairs, or editors. These are important activities that contribute to others doing science and that substantially reduce supervision quality, unless you are only one of a few advisees.

Why does an adviser even matter?

An adviser matters, especially for junior scientists, because an adviser can help in developing the necessary skills to develop a career in science or otherwise (unless, of course, you want to stay junior scientist forever). Advancing in a career is more than gathering data, analyzing results, and publishing papers. Advancement also requires a network of professionals, a knowledge of proper social protocol outside the laboratory, and chances to communicate your accomplishments and skills with others. Hopefully, the adviser you choose had already done these things to get to where he or she is today, so you’ll be able to do the same.

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