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Choosing the Right Research Group for Your PhD

Yoshi Okawachi, 2017 Ambassador, United States

The PhD journey is incredibly rewarding but also filled with many roadblocks and frustrations along the way. Unlike undergraduate studies, where the curriculum is set, the PhD program is much less defined. You are thrown into the research group without well-defined responsibilities and expectations and you are expected to figure it out along the way. Here a few things, based on recent conversations with graduate students and professors, that could get your PhD career off to a good start.
The most important step towards a successful PhD is finding an advisor that is a good match for you. This could be quite challenging since before you arrive at your university, often you only have an outdated group website to pull information from. If possible, try to visit with groups that you are potentially interested in working with. Don’t be afraid to talk to different professors, postdocs, and students to try to find a match. Find out about the culture, how research is performed, and what the advisor is like to work with. Advisors want the students to be successful, but different advisors have different philosophies. So it’s really important as a student to try and find out if your personality matches with them and that you can meet their expectations.
Before you consider the questions you want to ask, you should think about what is important to you. Is it the research and advancement of science? Is it journal publications and conference presentations? Is it the competition? Your peers? Life after PhD? For example, do you know if you want to choose academia or industry? How do you like to work? Do you like to work alone or as a part of a team? Are you self-motivated or do you need deadlines? Based on your personality and principles, you can formulate a series of questions to ask the advisor and group members.  
  1. What is their research scope? Do they specialize on one area or do they cover many different research areas?
  2. How are their publications? How frequently do they publish? Where do they publish?
  3. Where do they present their work?
  4. How is the funding situation?
  5. How much involvement does the advisor have in research? Do they micromanage or are they hands-off? Are the projects given to you? How do they guide your research? Do you have some freedom to explore yourself?
  6. Is the advisor accessible? Do they work with you in the lab? Do they sit down and work with you on theory?
  7. How much career guidance can they give you?
  8. Are they positive motivators? How supportive are they?
  9. Do they encourage involvement in professional societies, volunteer opportunities, and career development opportunities besides research?      
You may not be able to get all of the answers you need but these should assist you in finding the best fit.  
Students also should look at how involved postdocs are. In many situations, the postdocs (and senior grad students) may be more involved in day-to-day mentoring since they are in the lab with you. They can be your biggest knowledge source, especially early on in your PhD. You should not hesitate to ask questions and try to utilize their expertise. But just like your advisor, it would be good to know some things to determine if it’s a good match. Do the postdocs primarily work on their own research? Are they available as a mentor? Do graduate students work together or do they work mostly independently? What’s the atmosphere and dynamic? Is it competitive or collaborative?
A PhD is an opportunity to explore many paths. Just remember that it's a marathon, rather than a sprint and you will find make it through. Choosing the right advisor and group for you will help prepare you for a good start and a successful run.
Thanks to all of the students and faculty members for the useful discussion that helped in putting this together. 
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