I’ve received some questions lately about how to find a good major professor and thought that I would address them in a post.
First off, I’m obviously not really one to be doling out such advice since I chose horribly wrong, but I suppose I could at least speak to the warning signs to look for when on the hunt for a major professor.
1. How many grad students/post-docs does he have? If your lab-to-be is as deserted as, well, the desert, you should go running for your life. Why? You would think that the fewer people in the lab, the more attention you’ll get. Though that may be true, do you really want attention from your major professor all of the time? Plus, fewer people in the lab means more meaningless non-PhD-related grunt work for you. And did you ever stop to think that maybe there’s no one in the lab because your major professor-to-be is impossible to work for and anyone with half a brain knew better than to work for him? Yeah, nothing says run for your life more than an empty lab.
2. How does your major professor treat the people who are in the lab? This question might be hard to assess without actually spending a lot of time in his lab. For the few weeks that you may be there for your rotation, everything might appear rosy if your major professor-to-be is good at hiding his mean streak (like mine was), but given enough time, the mean streak will come out. Do the people in his lab seem happy to be there? Or do they secretly lunch together and dish about what an ass your major professor-to-be is? When I was a fresh-faced undergrad in my major professor’s lab, the people there dropped hints to me about how he may not be as nice as he seemed, but I was too naive to catch the hints then and paid dearly for it. If you get the sense that someone is dropping you a hint, take it and run for your life. You can always thank them later.
3. Here’s a simple hint. Ask the other grad students in the lab how they like your major professor-to-be. Sure, they may lie through their teeth, but unless you’re completely socially inept, you should be able to tell when they’re lying.
4. Has your major professor-to-be had any experience with MD/PhD students? Your future mentor might be awesome all-around, but if he hasn’t had any experience with us special kids, you still might end up screwed, simply because he just doesn’t know how the program works and the corners that may have to be cut in order for you to finish your PhD in a decent amount of time. If your major professor-to-be has no experience, be frank and ask him what his specific goals are with you given that you are on a special track and how he plans to help you finish your PhD in the allotted time. Ideally, the two of you would come up with a schedule that you will hopefully stick to so that you don’t end up spending forever on your PhD. If he truly is a good major professor, he will be able to adapt to your being a special case.
5. For the daring: come up with some crazy idea for your PhD project and run it by your major professor-to-be and observe how he reacts. If he berates you, then it’s obvious you should run for your life. If he gently tells you how your idea is crazy but finds a grain of non-craziness in your idea and tells you how to develop that non-crazy point into a workable idea without making you feel like an idiot, then he may be a keeper. Just be careful of the ones who are subtly berating you for being an idiot…they sound like they’re being nice, but they’re really just telling you you’re an idiot. If he doesn’t mention a single good thing (no matter how small) about your crazy idea, then that’s your cue to run for your life.
6. If your major professor-to-be is constantly telling you how great he is or what a nice boss/mentor he is, then you should probably run for your life. Someone who’s really great won’t have to tell you how great he is. His lab atmosphere and the people in the lab will tell you that. If he’s going to great lengths to tell you how great things are, then chances are the exact opposite is true.
7. Go with your gut. Regardless of empirical evidence, you should go with your gut. Even if everyone in the lab seems happy and you hit it off with your major professor-to-be, if your gut has nagging doubts, you should listen to it. It’s probably right.
These tips are more common sense than anything, but they are good things to ask yourself when you’re evaluating a potential major professor. You will be spending many years with this person. This person will decide when you get to move on with your life and go back to med school. This person can make you hate science. Or he can make you love it even more. Learn from my mistakes and choose wisely. If just one reader gets the point and doesn’t make a fatal mistake in choosing their major professor, then I will finally feel that I have not blogged about all of my struggles in vain.