Choosing an advisor can be a stressful thing to do. There are many factors that play a role in choosing an advisor: does the professor’s research interest me? is the professor taking on students? do I get along with the professor? do I like the professor’s advising style?
In my opinion, it is helpful to start looking at potential advisors while applying to grad school. When I was applying to grad school, I knew my interests were in number theory/algebra, so I looked at the number theory/algebra faculty’s research interests to see if there were people who’s research interested me. Of course I did not know exactly what I wanted to study, but there were certain things that appealed to me like studying elliptic curves for example. For every school I applied to, I made sure that there were a few (2-3) professors that I would be interested in working with that would be available to take students. Usually there is a limit to how many students a professor will take on as advisees, so it’s important to make sure that the professor you would like to work with is available.
Once I began grad school, I tried to start talking with these professors to get to know them more, and more importantly, so they could get to know me. There are many ways to go about this. Some things that I did that were helpful were taking courses with these professors, attending the algebra seminar at my school and going to the algebra seminar lunches (which the professors attend), and joining the number theory reading group at my school (which two of the professors run). After my second semester gettting to know these professors, I reached out to the professors I was interested in to talk about their researchs interests and to ask if they are taking students. These meetings are kind of like an interview, where you get to also ask the professors questions to see if they would be a good fit for you.
Another important thing to do before choosing an advisor is talk to the advisor’s current PhD students. The current students will be able to tell you more about what it’s personally like working with that professor. They have an inside scoop on the ups and downs and can tell you more about the professor’s expectations. Everyone looks for something different in an advisor. Some people prefer advisors that are more hands on and others prefer advisors that are more hands off and maybe some prefer a happy medium. Talking to the advisor’s current students will help you get an idea of what kind of advisor the professor is.
After deciding which professor I was most interested in, I asked to do a reading course/independent study with this professor. Before officially deciding who you want to work with, you should first do some sort of one-on-one study with the professor to see if you work well together and get along. You can also learn more about the professor’s research through this and decide whether you would enjoy doing the kind of work this professor does. Some professors actually require that you do this before they agree to take you on as a student. Having done this, I can say it’s a great idea for helping you decide whether you would like to work with the professor and it also makes asking the professor to be your advisor a little bit easier if everything goes well.
The most intimidating part for me was probably verbally asking my advisor if he would be my advisor. It almost feels as if you are proposing to someone. When I met with my advisor to talk about his research interests, I expressed interest in working with him and he suggested that we do an independent study and see how things go. Since it went well, I built up the courage to ask him and he said yes! I think that building a relationship with the professor before asking to be taken on as a student helps a lot, so definitely start talking to people as soon as you start grad school!