How to Find a Research Adviser

Adviser-advisee fit is one of the most important factors in determining whether you will have a good PhD experience. It’s important to do your research before you reach out to prospective advisers, and have a clear, direct conversation when you have a meeting with them. On this page, you can find information on how to go about this process.

  1. Find your research fit
  2. Reach out, make connections, apply 
  3. Clarify adviser-advisee expectations before joining the group

Find your research fit

Of course, you will want to make sure the potential adviser’s research is interesting to you. If you have a particular research interest (or perhaps, a few different ones), search for people who work on these topics by searching for papers on these topics. Start on Google. If the papers are behind paywalls, usually has open source versions of all physics papers. Make sure the papers are more or less recent, scientists change their research focus through their career, if you really like a paper from the 90s someone wrote, that is not a good indicator of what they work on now.

Read the papers, you don’t have to understand every detail, but do you feel excited by the content? That’s probably a good sign. Think about the skills you already have, whether computational, or experimental, and whether these seem to fit with the research program of the professors whose work you are reading. Your skills don’t have to be an exact fit, after all, the point of a PhD is to learn new skills, but it may be good to have some coding experience for computational research groups, for instance. Don’t forget to consider collaborators of the people whose papers you’re reading, or perhaps their former students and postdocs who are now professors themselves.

Reach out, make connections, apply 

This advice is somewhat Europe-specific, although you may try it anywhere.

Once you have made a list of potential supervisors, reach out to them with a brief email, describing your research interests, mentioning why you think you would be a good fit for their research program, and attaching your CV. You may not hear back from a lot of them, or hear back very fast. It’s okay, professors are busy, keep trying, and be patient. 

If you are applying to the US, this initial email often has no bearing on your application outcome. In fact, it is not really necessary to send an email unless you know the professor in some capacity, e.g. your current adviser is their collaborator, or you met them at a conference. Again, if you are applying to Europe, it is more common to reach out to professors.  Send emails to the professors, and broaden your pool of people to reach out to if you don’t hear back from anyone on your initial list. Don’t forget to keep your eye out for advertised positions from the professors you want to work with, whether on websites that list them, or LinkedIn, or even Twitter. Also, ask the professors you already know in your chosen research field (that is, if you have one) to suggest potential advisers for you.

Clarify adviser-advisee expectations before joining the group

Once you have an offer, and before you have committed to a certain group or institution, you can have a more involved chat with your prospective adviser.

Ask about their advising style, how much they supervise their PhD students, what their expectations are for someone getting a PhD in their group, etc. Do they want their PhD students to work all the time? Do they want to meet every day, every week, or once a month? Do they support their students in pursuing different career paths after graduation, not just the traditional academic one?

It’s also important to bring up funding. How do they intend on funding you? How many years can they support you? How much will you have to worry about funding your PhD versus being funded entirely by their research grants? How much will you have to teach to fund your PhD? Will they fund you to attend conferences in your field? Will they be open to you doing industry internships?

Don’t just talk to the adviser, talk to their current and former students and postdocs, privately. If you are close by, have lunch, coffee or drinks with different members of the research group. If you are far away, set up video calls. You need to have a good idea of what kind of work environment you are getting into for a few years of your life.