I recently came across the following document by Professor Alan M Johnson, which appears to be distributed freely by Elsevier and entitled “Charting a Course for a Successful Research Career: A Guide for Early Career Researchers – 2nd edition“.
Each research group has its own dynamics. In some, entering grad students get a very detailed “charge” list saying for example, there is a group meeting every week, so on and so forth.
What ever those dynamics are, as a graduate student you should learn quickly how busy is your thesis advisor and start planning regular meeting with him/her. Do not hesitate to initiate a request to meet. These, in my opinion after being involved in supervising or co-supervising over 45 graduate students, should happen:
- At least once a year to discuss the general direction of your research project and, starting at the end of year 2 (PhD), to plan the necessary steps toward your thesis completion 😉
- Every time you think you are ready to publish a manuscript (but before spending too much time writing it!).
- Every time you have significant new results (if not presented at the group meeting or if your group does not have group meetings).
- At least once a month to avoid getting “stuck” for too long (again regular group meetings really help in this regards).
Of course, thesis advisors are also busy peoples, won’t be available for you 24/7 and one of their goal is to get you on the road to become an independant researcher yourself. However as a grad student, you should know that most thesis advisors loved the interaction with students and are available on a regular basis to discuss with them.
The minority of advisors that are consistantly “unavailable” are usually well-known within their University / Department. It is your task as a prospective grad student to gather this information, to ask your future advisor the tough questions before signing for this significant portion of your life.
A part from the obvious discussion on salary, TA or other forms of support, here is a list of relevant questions you should be asking your future thesis advisor:
In a discussion with a postdoc of mine, she was telling me that she observed that advisors are of three types: opener, middle cruncher and closer… I am not sure this is the whole story but there is something to it
Opener corresponds to those individuals that the exceptionally good in defining projects in details, breaking it in smaller parts, imparting a vision to it and setting an achievable target for success. They are also especially good in getting all that is needed to get the project going.
Middle “crunchers” are highly efficient to step in resolving issues, pointing out important elements during the realization and getting new ideas along the way. They can turn around a project that appears to be failing and make them winner. At the same time, a number of individuals in that category tends to jump from project to project without always finishing the previous one: once they understand what’s going on, they get bored and move to a new “problem”.
Closers are particularly good in identifying key moments in project where enough have been done and, for example, a pause should be taken to write a paper and your thesis. They will guide you to destination and make sure everything is perfect.
I found out that getting ideas for projects is usually an easy part for most peoples. However, it does take more to be successful as a researcher. You have to be able to funnel those ideas to actual projects that are executed and in the end published in a form that is accepted in your field. A good mix of the above categories is essential. We all know or have encountered peoples for which one or more of the above is lacking… they usually experience difficulties in being independent researchers.
Have a critical look at how you are conducting your research activities and try to find out which one of the three types need your attention right now. Repeat once in a while. See how improving your weakest “side” help you get better overall!
Which types are you? What type is your thesis advisor?