How to Pick an Academic Advisor

One of the most common misconceptions I see among students searching for academic advisors– especially in the Humanities and Social Sciences – is that they need to find someone who works on the same “topic” (geography, time, or whatever else might be the litmus) as them. The “topic” of a project is often defined by students as the general geographic or temporal scale of their work, and that serves as the foundation in their search for an advisor. The question, we can assume, students ask is, “Who works on the same ‘topic’ as me?” While not an inappropriate place to start, the chances of actually finding a person who works on exactly what you’re interested in is pretty slim.   

“Professor Stalinstache is the only faculty member here who works on 19th century Egypt. She has to be my advisor!” No. No, she doesn’t. Professor Stalinstache works on 19th century Egyptian economic structures. You work on 19th century Egyptian religious revivalism. You’re going to have one hell of a time working with ol’ Stalin!

The question that should be asked, but is most often avoided by students is, “Who has the same approaches and methodologies as me?” Sidestepping this question is most likely due to not knowing what an “approach” is or what “methodology” means. Many of us have approaches and methodologies as young undergraduates without actually defining what they are. But in graduate school, it’s imperative to have a solid idea of what you’re doing and to have the vocabulary to articulate it.

“Approach” (or method or tool) can generally be defined by the sources you use to conduct your research:  interviews, chronicles, periodicals, published ethnographies, journals, oral histories, normative sources (and the list goes on!).

“Methodology” is the strategy you use to conduct your research: literary analysis, religious exegesis, ethnography, archival research, ideological critique, library and/or museum studies, material culture (and the list goes on!).

Let’s return to the example of Professor Stalinstache. The student might have asked if the Professor’s approaches and methodologies were in line with what they wanted to accomplish with their project. If we break down the “approach” and “methodology” question for the Professor and the student, a simple outline might look like the following:  

While Professor Stalinstache will, no doubt, have some insights and opinions on the student’s interests on Egyptian intellectuals of the 19th century, the Professor may not be in a position to advise the student on how best to do the project. Meanwhile, Professor Churchillcigar works on 20th century French and Moroccan intellectual developments and uses the same approaches and methodologies as the student. “Professor Churchillcigar might be a better fit for your project,” I may suggest. And the student’s uncritical response might be, “But he doesn’t work on my ‘topic.’” Alas, young grasshopper, neither does Professor Stalinstache.

How exactly are you supposed to find out what a professor’s approaches and methodologies are?  Read their work! You’ll get a good sense of how they conduct their research through the introduction of their books and articles. Remember, “topic” is not the best litmus test in your search for an advisor. How they do their work is.

Other questions to consider when searching for an advisor:

Does the faculty member have too many students?  If the faculty member you’re thinking of approaching oversees a dozen MA theses, has a handful of PhD students, and teaches every semester or quarter, you’re probably not going to get the best feedback from that professor. There just isn’t enough time for them to dedicate to critically reading your project and providing the guidance you might need to see your project through its completion. 

Is the faculty member kind?  Ask the professor’s former or current students about their experiences working with their advisor. You might be surprised at how some faculty treat their students outside of the classroom. Just because they were nice to you in a class or during an office hour does not mean that they will treat you with respect if they are overseeing your project.

Do you need a hands-on or hands-off advisor?  This really depends on your work style. Are you more productive when nobody monitors you? Or, are you the type of person who needs hand-holding through every section and stage of your project?  Some faculty members will never set meetings or request updates from you (or even respond to your emails!). Others will want to see drafts every few weeks. You really need to consider the working style of the professor before you ask them (and end up regretting it!). 

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