Here at Project Lever, we do our absolute best to connect you to an academic advisor for your research project. Unfortunately, through our match algorithm, we can’t necessarily give you the information about an individual professor’s tendencies (at least not yet!). Knowing a professor’s name, e-mail address, and office is only half of the battle. So what do you once you find the right advisor? What do the advisors look for?
To answer these questions, we spoke to Thomas Little, Associate Deanof Educational Initiatives in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Boston University.
1) Do the leg work.
According to Dean Little, the focal point of the relationship between a student and his/her academic or research advisor is sometimes not the research being done, but “the real value is at educating students to be better targets.” The first step in an advisor helping you to “become a better target” does not belong to the advisor, but to you. As most advisors aim to use their position to make you a better student and academic, they see the initial outreach and connection as a central part of the learning process.
That being said, you have to do it right. Chances are, your dream advisor will not come knocking on your door asking if you want to be advised, so you have to do the leg work. Once you’ve found out an advisor’s name and contact information by using Project Lever, reach out to them!
It is important to be a little bit selfish, and not the least bit timid. Whether through e-mail or in person, make a concerted effort to prove to your potential advisor that you are worth being advised through the way that you approach him/her. If in person—be prepared with a detailed plan of the type of research you want to conduct, and already think of ways that you and the advisor are working on similar things. Dean Little says that he wants students that are able to work well on a team as well as independently. So if your potential advisor is looking for similar attributes for an advisee, come up with ways that you can prove that you have these attributes before meeting with them.
2) Be prepared
Almost all potential advisors have some type of minimum cutoff that potential advisees are expected to meet before they can be accepted as an advisee. Depending on your specific discipline, research goals, and potential advisor these cutoffs can vary greatly. Some are standard, like a minimum GPA or test score cutoff. It is important that you know what these are before you go to meet with a potential advisor. Even if these cutoffs are not advertised, or do not exist, keep them in mind when communicating with potential advisors. If you know that you are above said cutoffs, use this to your advantage. If you know that you are below the cutoffs (or unsure), use that information to prove why your other strengths make you a good candidate.
Another part of passing the sniff test, according to Dean Little, is displaying your motivation. One of the most important things thatDean Little tells us is that he “gets motivated students.” So pass the initial sniff test of motivation by finding a way to display that you are personally motivated in some way or another that shows your potential. When an advisor sniffs the potential for your ability to learn and creativity, then they know that you are someone that is worthy of their time. They aim to make you better in the end, so prove to them that you have the capacity to do so.
3) Prove that you are more than your GPA.
Just as with applying for college, or applying for a job, seeking an academic advisor is a much more holistic process than just your resume, or GPA. You must prove to the advisor that you are perfectly suited for the specific task of being advised by the expert you are approaching. Note that it is important not to downplay the importance of these qualifying factors—as Dean Little says, “I want the highest GPA, SATs, GREs,”—it is equally important to consider the qualitative factors that will swing a potential advisor one way or another.
Before walking into a meeting with an advisor, ask yourself these questions: (1) How do my own research interests align with this professor’s? (2) How can I best display my passion for this research topic? (3) What do I want out of a research advisor? (4) How can I relay my creativity and ability to learn? The old saying applies here—failure to prepare is preparing to fail. So come prepared with an arsenal of information that tells the story of your research passions and more important—yourself.