What If I Like The Program, But Not The Professor?

 

You’ve landed a spot at one of your top programs. You’re so excited for the prospective visit weekend that you can’t sleep. You’ve worked on your list of questions for discussion ahead of time. You’ve picked out your interview outfit, and the day finally arrives to tour the department and meet your future advisor. After the meeting, you walk out of their office and while roaming the hallway you think to yourself “well, that was kinda disappointing.” It’s not uncommon to find a disconnect between a program you like and your potential advisor there. In fact many graduate schools ask applicants to discuss their topics of interest and which faculty members they would consider as advisors. But unless you’ve reached out to the professor beforehand (which we usually advise), the bulk of your decision has been based on a combination of subject interest, school reputation, and location. We’ve talked about picking an advisor, but what if you like the program, but not the professor?

This is a very personal decision, and one with potentially significant long-term consequences. A recent study revealed that >70% of tenure-track faculty hail from a handful of the top universities. So deciding to not attend a top program may seriously impact your saleability for securing a faculty position down the road. Moreover, because top-ranked schools generally have more resources to fund their programs, choosing to forego a PhD in one of them will have knock-on effects for you. The amount and quality of funding you’ll be working with, both within your department and around the university, might not be as comfortable. But rank isn’t everything. There are plenty of schools with high-caliber research output and top-notch career prospects upon graduation. So how do you decide?

Ultimately you need to understand why you don’t like the professor:

  1. Was your interaction brief, between hurried meetings in a packed visit weekend schedule?
  2. Did you get the opportunity to meet alone, or were you seated with a group of 3-4 other equally-interested graduate students to pitch your interest in their group?
  3. Was this your only interaction with the professor?

First impressions are incredibly powerful (and that goes both ways), but they can often paint a distorted picture of reality. Your ability to judge how you work with someone can only improve with increased interaction.

 

If you’ve only exchanged an email and a brief 10 minute conversation, you should ask to schedule a follow-up call or Skype meeting to discuss some more questions about the program or about your proposed project or their project ideas. This will give you a chance to gauge if your initial feelings were well founded or anomalous. Make the most of the visit weekend and talk to students already in the program or group to assess their opinion of the professor. Thankfully some visit weekends are engineered for current and prospective students to chat without faculty or administrator supervision, so you should take advantage wherever you can of getting their honest, undoctored opinion. As you gather more information, you should weigh that information against what is concerning you about working with the professor.

At the end of the day you are the best judge of your gut feeling, and if after rational analysis you still can’t shake your gut feeling, then go with it. Your advisor will be the first point of contact when you encounter any sort of hiccup along the way, they will help guide your learning as you parlay your projects into publications and fellowships, and they will be the ones writing your letters of recommendation when you take the next step in your career. If you’re uncertain you can develop a solid working relationship with the professor, then it’s time to explore alternatives:

  • Does the department have the option to change advisors within the first year? Since you’re probably not the first person to not click with a potential advisor, talk to the graduate students during the visit weekend to find out if other students have successfully navigate the group-switching process. It might be more common than you think, and that can help put you at ease that, if you try in the beginning and you’re just not finding a good fit with your advisor, you have the option to still pursue an interesting program of study with a fellow professor.
  • Some physical science graduate programs offer rotations during the first year, so that students can find an ideal fit for the rest of their PhD. If you don’t already know, gently enquire with the admissions coordinator with the premise that you are just carrying out your “due diligence.” More information is always better!
  • Again, take advantage of visit weekends to talk to other faculty members. While we don’t advocate the “Mr. Find Yourself (internal link)” approach to graduate school, visit weekends offer you a free option to find out which faculty you might have overlooked when browsing the department website. Maybe there’s another professor with whom you clicked more, and their working on an interesting topic! As we’ve mentioned in some of our other articles, picking an advisor might not just come down to likeability but also whether there’s funding available. So knowing your options now might save you headaches later on.

In summary, when you are committing yourself to a project as long and intense as a PhD, you need to go into it with the least number of misgivings. Because when you’re knee-deep in pipettes or library books two years in, you need to be confident you made the right choice. So if you find that after all your due diligence there’s no way to join the program without being tied to a professor with whom you can’t work, it’s time to consider one of the other schools on your list. Of course, it’s entirely possible this is your one and only option for graduate school. This changes the calculus significantly, so your decision will come down to your general risk tolerance. For those really struggling to make the decision in such a scenario, we recommend reading Smart Choices, which outlines a very useful framework for making tough life decisions.

 
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You’ve landed a spot at one of your top programs. You’re so excited for the prospective visit weekend that you can’t sleep. You’ve worked on your list of questions for discussion ahead of time. You’ve picked out your interview outfit, and the day finally arrives to tour the department and meet your future advisor. After the meeting, you walk out of their office and while roaming the hallway you think to yourself “well, that was kinda disappointing.” It’s not uncommon to find a disconnect between a program you like and your potential advisor there. In fact many graduate schools ask applicants to discuss their topics of interest and which faculty members they would consider as advisors. But unless you’ve reached out to the professor beforehand (which we usually advise), the bulk of your decision has been based on a combination of subject interest, school reputation, and location. We’ve talked about picking an advisor, but what if you like the program, but not the professor?

This is a very personal decision, and one with potentially significant long-term consequences. A recent study revealed that >70% of tenure-track faculty hail from a handful of the top universities. So deciding to not attend a top program may seriously impact your saleability for securing a faculty position down the road. Moreover, because top-ranked schools generally have more resources to fund their programs, choosing to forego a PhD in one of them will have knock-on effects for you. The amount and quality of funding you’ll be working with, both within your department and around the university, might not be as comfortable. But rank isn’t everything. There are plenty of schools with high-caliber research output and top-notch career prospects upon graduation. So how do you decide?

Ultimately you need to understand why you don’t like the professor:

  1. Was your interaction brief, between hurried meetings in a packed visit weekend schedule?
  2. Did you get the opportunity to meet alone, or were you seated with a group of 3-4 other equally-interested graduate students to pitch your interest in their group?
  3. Was this your only interaction with the professor?

First impressions are incredibly powerful (and that goes both ways), but they can often paint a distorted picture of reality. Your ability to judge how you work with someone can only improve with increased interaction.

 

If you’ve only exchanged an email and a brief 10 minute conversation, you should ask to schedule a follow-up call or Skype meeting to discuss some more questions about the program or about your proposed project or their project ideas. This will give you a chance to gauge if your initial feelings were well founded or anomalous. Make the most of the visit weekend and talk to students already in the program or group to assess their opinion of the professor. Thankfully some visit weekends are engineered for current and prospective students to chat without faculty or administrator supervision, so you should take advantage wherever you can of getting their honest, undoctored opinion. As you gather more information, you should weigh that information against what is concerning you about working with the professor.

At the end of the day you are the best judge of your gut feeling, and if after rational analysis you still can’t shake your gut feeling, then go with it. Your advisor will be the first point of contact when you encounter any sort of hiccup along the way, they will help guide your learning as you parlay your projects into publications and fellowships, and they will be the ones writing your letters of recommendation when you take the next step in your career. If you’re uncertain you can develop a solid working relationship with the professor, then it’s time to explore alternatives:

  • Does the department have the option to change advisors within the first year? Since you’re probably not the first person to not click with a potential advisor, talk to the graduate students during the visit weekend to find out if other students have successfully navigate the group-switching process. It might be more common than you think, and that can help put you at ease that, if you try in the beginning and you’re just not finding a good fit with your advisor, you have the option to still pursue an interesting program of study with a fellow professor.
  • Some physical science graduate programs offer rotations during the first year, so that students can find an ideal fit for the rest of their PhD. If you don’t already know, gently enquire with the admissions coordinator with the premise that you are just carrying out your “due diligence.” More information is always better!
  • Again, take advantage of visit weekends to talk to other faculty members. While we don’t advocate the “Mr. Find Yourself (internal link)” approach to graduate school, visit weekends offer you a free option to find out which faculty you might have overlooked when browsing the department website. Maybe there’s another professor with whom you clicked more, and their working on an interesting topic! As we’ve mentioned in some of our other articles, picking an advisor might not just come down to likeability but also whether there’s funding available. So knowing your options now might save you headaches later on.

In summary, when you are committing yourself to a project as long and intense as a PhD, you need to go into it with the least number of misgivings. Because when you’re knee-deep in pipettes or library books two years in, you need to be confident you made the right choice. So if you find that after all your due diligence there’s no way to join the program without being tied to a professor with whom you can’t work, it’s time to consider one of the other schools on your list. Of course, it’s entirely possible this is your one and only option for graduate school. This changes the calculus significantly, so your decision will come down to your general risk tolerance. For those really struggling to make the decision in such a scenario, we recommend reading Smart Choices, which outlines a very useful framework for making tough life decisions.

 
By
@
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