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Author Topic: How do you respond to inquiries about working with your PhD adviser?  (Read 4467 times)
New member
Posts: 2

« on: November 29, 2012, 3:11:34 pm »

I've been contacted by a student who wishes to work with my former major professor.  Should I tell them all the stuff I wish someone had told me, like Dr. Tenure won't lose any sleep if her students go unfunded or wind up sustaining collateral damage in her own battles with the department's dean? (What about if Dr. T. has a habit of snooping around to find out which students have given her poor classroom reviews?)  I mean, I did make it through, but I had to pay my own way for a while in the middle of my program (in a STEM department where this is pretty unusual) and I've still got a pub to submit with Dr. T. 
Distinguished Senior Member
Posts: 11,738

« Reply #1 on: November 29, 2012, 3:19:07 pm »

I have been thinking about this quite a bit lately. If someone asked me about working with my current advisor, I would put nothing in writing, but suggest we talk on the phone. I think there are ways to describe some of the challenges of working with someone without bad-mouthing them. Some people don't get along with their advisors because their working styles don't mesh well, so I think framing things like that isn't bad (with the implication that someone else may have a successful relationship with them).

For instance, you can say something like "Funding wasn't always secure, so you should be prepared to apply for external fellowships and TA positions." That alone will scare off anyone who has any options whatsoever.

When you are a scientist your opinions and prejudices become facts. Science is like magic that way!
Still a
Distinguished Senior Member
Posts: 1,851

« Reply #2 on: November 29, 2012, 5:23:42 pm »

I would be frank. I'd say that I had my challenges in the lab, that I wasn't the only one, and that if you have any more questions, to give me a call.

In six years or so, this person will be a colleague of yours, maybe. Don't you want them to thank you from warning them away from the toxic pit from which you extricated yourself?
across that road
Junior member
Posts: 67

« Reply #3 on: November 29, 2012, 7:56:51 pm »

I agree with scampster.  I didn't always mesh with my advisor.  Some of that was just a difference in styles, so when prospective students approached me I listed the type of style my advisor had, what worked for me and what didn't, and the personality traits incoming students needed to have to be successful.  I didn't put anything in writing, but always talked to them on the phone or in-person and encouraged them to talk to other former students.  I think honesty and constructive criticism is important because, as offthemarket pointed out, the student could be your colleague someday.  However, your advisor is a colleague now and still holds some power over you, so you need to tread lightly.
Distinguished Senior Member
Posts: 1,553

« Reply #4 on: November 30, 2012, 5:16:11 pm »

How would you want someone to respond if you asked them about a potential advisor?

Once upon a time, I started a PhD program with an advisor working in my area who seemed to be a good fit.  Unfortunately, about a year in I dropped out of that program due to a variety of reasons, but they were all related to my advisor in one way or another.  Prior to starting this PhD program I attempted to do my due diligence and contacted several of their previous students.  However, I did not get any responses from any of them, so I went in blind based on my meeting with said advisor.  Much later, I learned that they had had many similar issues with their previous students and that they could have been predicted if they would have bothered to reply to my inquiry.

I'm not saying that this would have changed my decision and saved my 2 years of my life, but this is a possibility.  Anyway, I think that you should definitely be honest and upfront about it, but the telephone suggestion is worth considering.
Distinguished Senior Member
Posts: 2,373

« Reply #5 on: December 11, 2012, 11:34:03 am »

My advisor is retired. Anyway, information on certain advisors is not hard to come by, especially if the person has a certain amount of clout in the field. Looking back, my advisor did me a world of good. The process was far from easy, though.

On the other hand, when people ask about my university, in general, whether they are prospie students or those considering grad school, I dish freely, particularly when it comes to the query, "Why does it take so long to finish?" The fact is, many professors in my former department (and across the university) are clueless about real life and the job market. Even my colleagues at my new institution are aware of its infamous rep. I was having dinner with someone in a completely different department the other night and the person asked me "So is your department like the x department in terms of taking forever?" I said, "Why, yes! How did you know?"

So yes, I generally tell students to apply elsewhere.

Quote from: cgfunmathguy
We're just cyborgs standing in the way of their dreams.
Senior member
Posts: 298

« Reply #6 on: February 15, 2013, 2:53:05 pm »

I have been in this position before.  I ended up alluding to some of the "challenges" that working with my advisor would pose for this person.  However, I have also noticed that everyone has a different image of what qualities makes a good advisor.  What you consider challenges may not be an issue for the prospective student.  So, I think it is always good to give a frank description of the mentoring style that your former advisor would provide and allow the student to make up his or her own mind. 

As 'offthemarket' mentioned, this person could be your colleague in the future, so I think it's wise to be frank with the student but also not come across as someone who will talk poorly about someone else behind their back.  It's a fine line.

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