Finding your research supervisor

FEBRUARY 2ND, 2020 AT 12:40 AM

Carlos Barajas is a third year Mechanical Engineering graduate student at Massachusetts Institue of Technology (MIT). He completed his bachelors at the University of Michigan, also in Mechanical Engineering. His research is focused on applying fundamental concepts in control theory to synthetic biology. He is just now getting the hang of grad school and is eager to share tips with incoming students or anyone interested in pursuing a higher degree.

Navigating undergrad as a first-generation college student was difficult for me. Luckily, Michigan had many programs in place to help new students navigate college. However, once I got to graduate school, I noticed that that kind of support was not in place. The graduate school experience is so unique between students that it can be hard to have standard programs in place. Also, finding people who have gone through the same learning experience as you can be difficult to do as a graduate student. Needless to say, my first year of graduate school was difficult in terms of learning “the tricks of the trade”. To help others beat the learning curve, I’ve put together some helpful tips and connections to resources. This article will primarily focus on navigating graduate school as a new student. Below are essential points to consider as one begins the journey towards a higher degree. 


Choosing the right research lab to join

  • Explore lab websites – look at the type of research being done, ongoing projects, the current members of the lab, as well as where alumni have gone to get a sense of the learning environment and research themes.
  • Speak to current and previous graduate students in the lab – it is often best to do this in a neutral environment to encourage the student to share their honest perspective!
  • Look at the list of ongoing grants as well as those recently submitted to get a sense of the lab’s research direction.
  • Meet with the PI one-on-one and don’t be afraid to ask them questions – where have their previous trainees ended up? What is their approach to mentorship? Can you expect a hands-on or an arms-length supervisory experience? Will you be able to attend conferences? Can you expect to continue extra-curricular commitments and hobbies without interference?
  • Consider options for co-supervision in situations where you think your research could strongly benefit from the involvement of both PIs; but make sure you are familiar with the expectations of both supervisors, their relationship as colleagues, and the previous experiences of others in co-advisory situations.
  • Self-reflect on what your expectations are from your graduate experience – do you plan to walk away having gained a long-term mentor in your supervisor? Do you hope to be able to train and teach others? Do you want to work independently or in a team?


Securing funding

  • Scholarships are a great addition to your CV and can often increase your stipend – explore national and local opportunities to apply (institutions often have resources that will guide you and alert you to upcoming deadlines for applications).
  • Research Assistantships (RAs). This is often the primary method students fund their graduate education at research universities. Every year faculty members and PI’s look for graduate students to carry out research and, in return, they will fund them (this may be fully or partially, be sure to ask). It is important that when you meet with faculty you are interested in working for, you inquire if they have funding for you. Don’t restrict your search to just your department, often times PI’s at other departments may fund you. 
  • Teaching Assistantships (TAs) are an excellent way to gain teaching experience, and in some cases can serve as a supplement to your student stipend. Speak to your departmental or institutional teaching unit or your PI to explore available opportunities to become a TA.


Balancing class, research, and qualifying exams 

  • Course requirements for your graduate degree will depend on your program, but are often less intense than undergrad (especially for research-based graduate degrees).
  • In thesis-focused graduate programs, the priority should be on research rather than course work – courses are there to augment and expand your knowledge while complementing your growth as a researcher.
  • Focus your efforts on learning the fundamentals for your research and qualifying exams. 
  • Utilize scheduling tools to map your graduate trajectory, keeping key milestones (qualifying exam, committee meetings, final defense) in mind. 
  • In the case of PhD programs, there may be a requirement for preliminary research results in order to pass your qualifying exam – speak to colleagues and your supervisor to get a sense of expectations and plan accordingly.


Maintaining work-life balance

  • Regular physical activity is a great way to schedule time for yourself – check the facilities available on campus when you are committing to a graduate school. 
  • Eat healthy – explore different options on campus or explore home-cooking as a way of keeping finances in check and scheduling time for self-care.
  • Get involved – there are many ways for you to engage in your community, whether by joining sports teams, clubs, competitions, or engaging in social activities in your supervisory lab. Find the activities and people that fit you and schedule them in to your daily life.


On campus resources – there are often plenty

  • Most institutions have mental health services available to support you, whether you are having an emergency, or you are struggling to overcome ongoing issues (imposter syndrome, trauma, anxiety, etc). Familiarize yourself with these resources when you start grad school – you never know when you or a colleague/friend may need to access them.
  • Emergency funds – Most schools have a set of funds available to graduate students who encounter an emergency situation or one-time, unusual, or unforeseen expenses while completing their degree. Be aware of what resources are available to you before you may need them.
  • Academic help – don’t be afraid to speak to your mentors when you need help, whether for classes or in your individual research project.


Conflict resolution resources

  • In the event that you are facing conflict with a fellow lab member, it is often better to seek resources to resolve the conflict sooner rather than later. Your supervisor may have ideas to facilitate this as well as access to on-campus resources for conflict resolution.
  • In the event of a conflict with your supervisor, your advisory committee and/or department head may be a good starting point for advice. Institutions often have conflict resolution guidelines for these very situations (such as the use of an ombudsperson), so consult your department for access to these.


Tangible tips

  • Do your homework before committing to a graduate program or institution. Know what you are looking for in an advisor and the type of research that excites you. In some programs, you will have needed to secure a supervisor before you start while in others you will have a chance to rotate through labs. In both cases, the sooner you have an idea of who you would like to work with, the easier your journey’s start will be.

  • Apply to scholarships/fellowships before starting graduate school. If you are starting directly after undergrad, be aware of deadlines for scholarship applications before grad school begins.

  • Take an early look at the qualifying exam format and begin planning classes accordingly. PhD programs have different formats, requirements, and deadlines for the qualifying exam so become familiar with this information before you start your courses so that you can plan your research time accordingly.

  • Familiarize yourself with resources on campus. You never know when you will need to access physical/mental health services or conflict resolution support. It is better to know where to find these before you are in a crisis.

  • Explore your housing options ASAP. You may find it hard to find a suitable place to live that is within your financial and personal requirements once the housing rush starts. Look online, ask colleagues for advice, and utilize institutional information packages.


Useful Resources 

This book provides guidance for navigating your PhD experience and making the most of it.

"Mastering your PhD: Survival and Success in the Doctoral Years and Beyond" by Gosling et al.


This website provides useful advice for all stages of graduate school.


This article is a useful resource for navigating the final year of graduate school. 


This panel discussion by the Office of Graduate Education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explores the topic of navigating graduate school in a question-based format.


This is a helpful webinar on navigating graduate school.


The Reddit forum for “graduate school” can be an excellent resource for discussions on grad life.

Comments and questions

Create an account or sign in to leave your thoughts or ask a question.

No comments were found.