How do I choose a faculty mentor?

Though the nature of research in some departments leaves the graduate student little to no choice in selecting a primary research mentor, other programs assume considerable flexibility in selecting a primary research mentor. This person is usually the thesis or dissertation director, but she or he may take on mentoring functions earlier in the program as well. Beyond the primary research mentor, though, all students should feel encouraged and empowered to build mentoring relationships with various and multiple informal mentors within and beyond their home departments (see the pages on multiple mentoring and supplementing your primary mentoring relationship). It is important that students recognize the possibility and value of this extended network of mentors, even as they may be selecting a primary research mentor to lead their thesis or dissertation work.

The selection of a primary research mentor, however, remains an important decision for students entering the final stages of research in their graduate programs. Of course, there is no formula for selecting faculty mentors, since programs, projects, and personalities are all important variables. However, students selecting a primary research mentor will benefit from considering the following:

What are my needs as a student and researcher? Whose work style seems to align with or complement my own style?

Whose research interests seem to align with or complement my own?

What other students have worked with this faculty member? What have their experiences been like?

What relationship does this faculty member seem to have with the intellectual community of the department, and with graduate students in particular?

In addition to the considerations above, Fischer and Zigmond (1998) highlight other "critical variables" in choosing an advisor that may be particularly pertinent to students in the sciences:  "the role of the student in generating research questions; ownership of ideas and authorship on publications; financial support for living expenses and travel to professional meetings; the amount of time to be spent on research; and the definition of an adequate doctoral dissertation" (32).

Reflecting on your own goals and needs is an important first step, while discussing this decision with peer mentors and other colleagues in your department can take some of the guesswork out of envisioning a research relationship with faculty.