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Guidance on picking a graduate adviser

Professor Russ Altman speaks with MD/PhD students Andy Loening, center, and Raag Airan, right, who are members of the first group of students to enroll in the new bioengineering department.I recently spent an evening chatting at a table filled with first-year graduate students at Stanford’s Biosciences Orientation dinner, which made me particularly interested in reading an advice article from Stanford's Ben Barres, MD, PhD, published today in Neuron.

This is a practical advice article from a well-respected scientist on how new graduate students should go about picking a good mentor. Barres, a professor of neurobiology, said that he picked a wonderful mentor as a student - "through sheer dumb luck" - and he wants to share what personal knowledge he's gleaned over the years as a researcher and an advisor of students himself. He writes:

...It is the guide that I wish someone had handed to me the day I entered graduate school. I write this with some trepidation, as I am certainly not a Nobel Laureate...  But, as I always tell my students, the real Prize is enjoying doing science. This is a Prize that I have won. I want my students - and every aspiring young scientist - to win it too.

Choosing a good mentor is extremely important to the future success of a young scientist. The Stanford students who I talked with at the dinner were aware of this fact and were also constantly reminded of it by the speakers. And I could see it was a matter of intense concern for them. I know a step-by-step guide on how to go about this somewhat daunting task would be much appreciated.

More from the piece:

...[Why] do some talented students succeed as scientists whereas others do not? This is a question that has long intrigued me. I see it around me every day. Students who have always loved science from a young age enter graduate school, but some of these students leave not enabled to be a successful scientist and/or demoralized, having somehow lost their passion for science. I will argue here that for most students, selecting a good research mentor is the key

First, let me mention what a student should never ever do. An adviser should not be selected solely because he or she is the one researcher at your university that happens to work on the precise focused topic that you think you are most interested in (usually whatever you worked on in an undergraduate lab). In my experience, this is exactly what nearly every graduate student does!

Begin your search for an adviser by casting as broad of a net as possible, Barres advises. Try lab rotations in different areas, then create a broadly defined list of potential advisers in your general field of interest. Next, screen for scientific ability and mentorship ability. Barres even gives tips on how to find lists of former students to check out what they are doing now as a possible screening method. Basically, students should do what they're good at: Research.

Previously: First-year science graduate students enter brave new world, Starting a new career in academic medicine? Here’s a bible for the bedside: The Academic Medicine Handbook and Distinction with a difference: transgender neurobiologist picked for National Academy of Sciences membership
Photo by L.A. Cicero/ Stanford News Service

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