Rebecca Richards-Kortum, PhD
Distinguished Teaching Professor and Cockrell Family Chair in Engineering #10
As a graduate student, the most important decision you will make is the choice of your thesis supervisor. You should be sure that you make an informed choice. Some things to consider, especially for those in science and engineering:
Is the research area one that you care deeply about? You will spend 4-5 years of your life on this project; it should be something that is meaningful to you.
Are there future jobs in this field or is it considered to be a 'dead area'? Throw-away journals in your area (find out what they are) will talk about future research areas. Funding agencies like NSF and NIH publish areas that they intend to provide broad support of in future years.
Is your advisor regarded as a leader in her field? What is her publication record like? What is her funding record like? Does she give invited talks at conferences in the field? Much of your ability to get jobs in the future will depend on the visibility of your laboratory. Get their full CV and search the literature and funding databases.
Does your advisor take the process of student development seriously? Will she meet with you regularly or will you only see her 5 minutes a semester in between trips? Will she work with you to help you find a job when you graduate or is it all up to you? Ask the current students in the lab what their experience is like. In some large labs, post-docs can help fill this role. Much of your career will depend on informal networks that you form in graduate school. If your advisor mentors you through this process, life is much easier.
Is the lab a supportive place to work? Do students help each other or compete against each other? Are there support staff to help with experiments or is it all up to you? Do people seem happy to go to work every day? Ask these questions before you commit to the lab.
What are the advisor's expectations of you? How many hours/week are expected? How many publications before graduation? How long does it take the average student to get their degree? Will you be expected to help write proposals?
Once you have found the right lab, be sure that both you and your advisor have the same clear expectations and goals for your project. It will probably take about a year for this to evolve as you learn more about your project and the field. If you find that the lab or the project is not the right one for you, don't be afraid to move.