Choosing Your Fate: Finding the right PhD mentor
Updated: Sep 24
By Michael Whaby
Undoubtedly one of the biggest decisions for a graduate student—especially PhD students—is choosing a mentor. Indeed, they come in all shapes and sizes. But unfortunately, the choice is not as simple as finding a mentor that does research that interests you. As this decision largely determines the direction of your graduate work, I figured it's worth discussing.
A graduate mentor—often referred to as a principle investigator (PI) in the sciences—is a professor that one does research under to complete a thesis or dissertation. These mentors are the graduate students’ guides, “bosses”, wisdom-providers—the list goes on; you name it. Mentors, along with other sub-mentors that make up a committee, not only help students finish their graduate work, but also help them prepare for their next steps in their careers. Accordingly, they also determine whether said graduate students are ready to defend their theses and graduate. They’re important.
Below, we’ll walk through some questions you may want to consider when choosing a graduate mentor. I will surely bias this in the perception of a STEM-related graduate student, as I am a biomedical PhD student. However, these questions should be of use to graduate students in other fields, too. Throughout this post, keep in mind what your intentions and goals are in pursuing a graduate degree.
Shall we begin?
Where to begin?
Simple answer: Begin well before you start the program. You should know of potential mentors for each program that you will be applying to (see post on PhD applications). Reach out to these mentors ahead of time (via email) and succinctly tell them of your interest in the program itself and their research. Then, try to set up a call or meeting—which could easily be virtual, especially given the current state of the world. Make sure to do your research on the potential mentor and the program before meeting with them. This will make the meeting much more efficient.
These are the initial stages that will not only help you decide which program is best for you, but also help you find the right mentor and make connections before even starting the program. But still, just based off of these initial connections and conversations, do not yet put all of your eggs into one basket.
Use me as an example, I came to the Medical University of South Carolina to pursue a PhD in biomedicine. During the first year, we had to complete 3 lab rotations with 3 different mentors and labs. I came here with a good idea of which labs I would rotate with. When I got here, however, I ended up rotating in 3 labs different than those I had anticipated. Thankfully, I still fared well—as I still utilized the proceeding questions—but it’s best to try avoiding situations that make you improvise.
Tip: Even after talking with potential mentors, talk with the Dean of the graduate school and ask of any restrictions that might prevent you from having a certain mentor (we will learn more about this issue below).
What is the funding situation?
Something that is especially important for PhD students: You have to find a mentor who can afford you—or a school that funds you even if the mentor can’t. Some programs will provide funding for their students in the case that the PI does not have sufficient funding; however, the majority of programs do not offer this luxury. You will often have to be wary of the funding status of a potential mentor.
Tip: I used NIH RePORTER to “investigate” the funding status (from the NIH, at least) of potential mentors.
I talked with potential mentors before starting my PhD program that, by the time I started, were no longer able to take students because they lacked funding. This is why I added the side note above: Talk to the Dean, too. Know exactly which professors are most likely suited to take on graduate students.
Who do you learn well from?
As a graduate student, you must learn to think independently about your research and topics in your field. Your mentor will play a major role in helping you gather the tools necessary to do this. A quality that I searched for in a mentor was the level of communication they had with me. When we talked about research, I asked myself: 1) Did I learn well from this mentor? 2) How did they act if I didn’t understand something? 3) Were my ideas considered and not just tossed away?
To that last point, you want to be able to learn well from your mentor, but it is also important that your mentor can learn from you as well. As you grow as an academic and professional, you will bring more and more ideas to the table. Having these ideas heard, and not just in a passive manner, will add even more value to your training, your professional confidence, and your voice.
What is the rest of the lab like?
Labs can be very diverse environments. There can be other grad students, undergrads, postdocs, staff scientists, lab technicians, etc. You have to figure out which type of environment is most fitting for you. Maybe it’s a larger lab with multiple people at many stages in their career. A larger lab might indicate that you’ll have less one-on-one time with your mentor. And some people actually enjoy this “freedom”. In smaller labs, however, you tend to get more attention from the mentor.
The lab that I work in, for instance, consists of 3 staff scientists and 1 postdoc. I am the only graduate student. At first, this was kind of intimidating because everyone had so much experience on me. But the benefits to this were that I had tons of experienced people all around me. Most of the help I continue to receive comes from the other lab members, and yet I still have the luxury of being able to meet one-on-one with my mentor.
Tip: A good way to get a sense of what the lab and mentor are like is to join in on a few lab meetings. Here, you will get insights on how the lab functions and communicates with one another, and also will see some of the expectations that the mentor has of the lab.
Lastly, Talk to current and former graduate students of the lab. They will have the best, and hopefully unbiased, insights about the mentor and lab. You will never know exactly what a mentor is like through just a couple interactions with them, so it couldn’t hurt to hear another’s perspective.
What are their values vs yours?
As a graduate student, you will always encounter the dilemma of a work-life balance. Between self-guilt and pressure from peers or even your mentor, striking a good work-life balance is one of the hardest feats of graduate school.
Everyone’s ideal work-life balance is unique to them, but too much of either is risky. Again, with just a straightforward approach, ask potential mentors what they do to encourage a healthy work-life balance.
This plays into what mentors expect of their graduate students. Different mentors will have different expectations of their students and other lab members. Some mentors are more relaxed and flexible, while others are strict and more upfront about their expectations. It is best to openly ask them this question. No beating around the bush here; these are the conversations that need to happen early on.
Yet again, sadly, there are no “right" answers here; there are no single answers to the questions above that would be fitting for everyone. It would be wrong of me, though, to downplay the importance of this decision. So, I’ll leave you with this: If you’re lucky, you will have a hard time choosing between a few different great mentors. Good luck!