the art of the major professor hunt

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.

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  1. has my major professor been reading my blog?!Probably not.  But he's been acting awfully strange.  Strange as in being nice.  And supportive.  Being what he was like way back when I first joined his lab.  And he hasn't been like this a really long time.First, there was evil committee member.  I was scared to tell him about how she had shot my project down because I thought that he would just yell at me and not get the point (which is how he has been reacting to things I tell him ever since I rejoined his lab).  And he kind of did at first with a snide "I told you so" type of comment.  But then he had a change of heart or something and instead came up with helpful ideas for how I could address my evil committee member's complaints.  Ideas that I could actually use.  Which hasn't happened for as long as I can remember.  And he was nice about it.  And willing to have a normal dialogue with me as I raised different questions and reasoned through what he was saying.  He would always just end up screaming at me before.  I was amazed.  Maybe he got some the night before.  Or his wife slipped some Prozac into his food.  I figured it was just a fluke though.Until the other day, when I was having issues with the grad student who was making me feel like the village idiot.  I was particularly annoyed that day because we were having problems scheduling our patient studies...
  2. my major professor, the generous oneSo I'm studying at lab, which doesn't work very well when my major professor interrupts me every two seconds with some super-unimportant thing or other.Today, he walks into my office and says, "You have your MD/PhD poster session AND retreat coming up.  Are they going to interfere with your orals?"I honestly don't even remember the dates of those events because I'm too busy worrying about quals, but I know that the abstract for the retreat isn't due until two days AFTER my quals.  So I tell him, "Well, I don't remember when the poster session is and the retreat abstract is due two days after my orals, so I just have...a very full plate."He responds by saying, "Well, I can talk to the MD/PhD people and get you excused from the activities."By this time, I had looked up the date of the poster session and it's one day after my quals. "Well, there's no point since both of them take place after my quals.  There's no reason why they should excuse me from them."To which he says, "Well, maybe you'll be too tired or something.  Or maybe you'll go to Vegas to celebrate passing."And I say, "Well, you can try to get me excused if I fail."And then he walks away, leaving me wondering how completely pointless that entire conversation was.  I'm sure he was trying to pretend to be generous or something, so that he could later rub in my face how much he "protects" his lab.  But really,...
  3. is graduate school right for you?So you haven't been reading my blog and you're considering going to grad school, but you're not sure if it's right for you?  Well, not to fear, all you have to do is answer a few questions and you'll have your answer. Do you... ...enjoy being forced to look at really old figures from really old papers that you have no idea about and draw the same conclusions as said old papers written by people way more brilliant than you for entire semesters/quarters at a time? ...enjoy being put on the spot even though you haven't the faintest idea what the hell is going on? ...enjoy looking like an idiot all of the time because you have no idea what's going on? ...enjoy giving talks about your research that no one cares about or that isn't going anywhere? ...enjoy spending all of your waking hours in the lab and then some? ...enjoy being at the mercy of a narcissistic/bipoloar/passive-aggressive idiot? ...enjoy doing a whole shitload of work for peanuts? ...enjoy doing said shitload of work only to have your narcissistic/bipolar/passive-aggressive idiot major professor take all the credit? ...never want to finish school because that means you'll have to find a real job? If you answered yes to five or more of these questions, then grad school is definitely for you.  Run, don't walk!...

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