Ph.D. is not just a degree, it is a lifetime experience for most students. A doctorate degree, whether in the field of science or engineering, empowers the student with various different skills. From presenting your research to a broader audience to publishing the research in prestigious journals, developing transferable skills to becoming an independent researcher. But it all starts by choosing the right mentor to work with during your Ph.D.
One of the first things to consider while choosing a Ph.D. advisor is how responsible s/he is as a mentor. A Ph.D. advisor is responsible for guiding the student to find a reasonable project that can be completed within the stipulated graduation schedule. One way to find this is to check with the past and current students of your potential future advisor. For example, how long did his previous students take to complete their PhDs? If his previous students are taking 6-7 years on average or more and your expectation is to complete your Ph.D. in 4 years, you may need to delve deeper about your choice of Ph.D. advisor. Quite often if most of the students are taking 6-7 years on average to finish a Ph.D. under a specific advisor, it is not the fault of the students. It is most likely that the advisor is underestimating the work that is required to complete the project. Some projects require taking experimental data and observations which are not readily available. If you are expecting to receive a Ph.D. in coming 5 years, but the data for the project will not be available until 4 years from now, then it may not be feasible to analyze the data, publish results, defend your thesis and complete your Ph.D. -all in just one-year timeline. It is also to be noted that quite often the experimental observations have a huge uncertainty attached to it. If the experimental setup or instrument stops working in the middle of your Ph.D., will your advisor have a backup project to support you through the Ph.D.?
Another important point to consider while choosing your Ph.D. advisor is to asses: how important is this research? What will be the demand for this research in the coming 5-10 years when you will be looking for a job? Can the related skill and knowledge from this research be applied to a broader field or is it too specific? The general notion is that if research is funded by some national agencies then the research is considered valuable. If the long-term value of the research is questionable, then at least the Ph.D. research project should help you to develop transferable skills that can be used in other fields or jobs.
From the current students, you can ask how helpful their advisors are in guiding them with their projects. Did the advisor guide them to write their first paper, to get selected for their first talk, to get their first fellowship or recommend for their first job? Is s/he supportive of their career goals? Whether your career goal is to join academia or industry, Ph.D. is the best time to build different sets of skills and preparing yourself for the next career move. If your aim is to follow an academic career, it is important to find out what skills and achievements are expected from a Ph.D. Different fields expect different skills and achievements: publications, patents, conference papers, book chapters. Some engineering fields prefer to hire researchers with a few years of industry experience after a Ph.D. in academic positions. If your aim is to follow a career in industry, then it is important to find out what skills that industry expects from a Ph.D. graduate. Different fields have very different expectations when it comes to what skills and achievements they prefer while hiring. It is important to notice if your potential advisor and her/his group are actively building these skills and achievements. For example, if your field expects a Ph.D. graduate to have publications then, is your advisor or his group producing sufficient publications? Are the past students already well-established? Does your advisor have good collaborators or professional networks that you can use to get your next job? Is your advisor interested to share his professional connections with his current or past students?
It is to be noted that even if a student is very hard working and talented if the mentor is not interested to promote the valuable contribution of the student, it becomes very difficult for the student to build an academic career. Similarly, just because an advisor is a famous scholar, does not necessarily mean that they are also great mentors for their students. They can be great and famous researchers but not necessarily great mentors. Finally, your Ph.D. advisor’s past and current students are your measuring scale to check if s/he is the right advisor for your Ph.D. expectations and career goals.
Aparna Bhattacharya is working in the Gravitational Microlensing Centre at NASA Goddard Space Flight centre since 2016.