How to Find the Right Advisor

24. June 2013

Shoresh Shafei and Sean Mossman

When you enter grad school, you are immediately faced with a barrage of choices: which courses to take, where to find funding, which topic to study, etc. It’s easy to see how finding an advisor can fall to the bottom the list. Yet it is one of the most important steps you can take toward launching a successful scientific career, since a good advisor can help you to tackle all those other decisions effectively. Everyone has different needs and priorities, but here are a few factors we think are crucial to consider.

Look for a leader. Labs run more smoothly with a strong leader, so you should take the management techniques of the advisor into account. A research group may include several postdocs, graduate students and undergrads, in addition to long- and short-term visitors. These people most likely have different motivations and goals, and they may come from diverse cultural backgrounds. A group leader must be able to balance these varied interests, help the members to work together constructively, and minimize conflicts.

Understand that training is key. He or she should spend time teaching you the skills you need to become a successful scientist. A graduate student isn’t just extra help around the lab; he or she is a mentee! The ultimate goal should be for students to become original thinkers, not to learn how to run an experiment on autopilot without interpreting data or coming up with ideas of their own.

Learn communication skills. A good mentor should communicate effectively and urge you to do the same. He or she should encourage you to prepare and present talks at conferences, make informative and eye-catching posters, and build a helpful network of colleagues. You need to be thinking about all aspects of your education, and your advisor should too.

Consider your mentor’s accessibility. Many graduate students complain about having to wait for a long time to meet with their advisor or receive a response to their emails. Regular one-on-one interaction with your mentor is crucial to making the most of your relationship. It can be difficult to know in advance how available your advisor will be, but you can ask current or former group members about their experiences.

Think about research standards and reputation. Your future advisor’s research standards will become yours as well. Think about how his or her research projects are conducted, results are analyzed, and findings are reported. Is the emphasis on getting research published as quickly as possible, or does quality take precedence? What matters most to you? Finding an advisor with a good reputation will help you to build your own, especially as a young scientist preparing yourself for the job market.

Although there are many factors that contribute to your success in graduate school, having an effective and supportive advisor is extremely helpful. Do yourself a favor and give this decision the time and consideration it deserves by thinking about it early. The more information you have, the better choices you’ll make.

We would like to dedicate this article to Prof. Mark Kuzyk, a great friend and outstanding advisor, for his 55th birthday.

Shoresh Shafei ( and Sean Mossman are with the department of physics and astronomy at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., U.S.A. 


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What to Wear? Advice from Scientists about Dressing for Success

19. June 2013

 Marc Kuchner  

This post is adapted from content that first appeared on the blog Marketing for Scientists with the kind permission of the author.

Studies show that how we dress affects what people think of our personalities and capabilities, and scientists are unlikely to be immune to these biases. For this reason, I recently posted an interview with image consultant Kasey Smith, who offered me her professional advice about what image consultants do and how to dress to improve my image. To my delight, the interview received more comments than any of my previous blog posts. From this feedback, I picked up more good tips about clothing and fashion in the scientific world, which I share here.

Dress Up for Interviews and Meetings With Non-Scientists.

It’s probably no surprise that we need to dress up when we give talks and want to impress non-scientist decision makers. “I think it’s very important to be cognizant of these kinds of things, especially when we meet with VIPs such as provosts and university presidents and the like, not to mention potential donors to the college or university,” said one department chair. So there’s a time and a place to kick it up a notch and add that third piece, as Kasey suggested—perhaps a scarf or a jacket.

Don’t Overdo It.

Be aware that when you’re dressing to impress, it’s possible to overdo it.  In one comment, a biophysicist told me, “I’m more likely to believe the science of somebody wearing a nice pair of khaki pants and a shirt than somebody wearing the whole ‘CEO costume.’”  In another email, an astronomy professor reminisced about watching a job candidate botch his interviews by failing to observe the casual dress code at the institution where he was applying. “He gave his talk in a suit, which in any other environment would be perfectly appropriate. However, given the laid back nature of [our institution], it was really overkill and actually was distracting.”

Also, if you’re planning to buy a special outfit for job interviews, remember what another scientist told me: “Once you’ve bought your clothes, wear them a couple of times before your interview. Clothes just out of the rack are rather stiff, and (at least to some of us) it’s very obvious when somebody is wearing a suit that he just bought.”

Use Clothing to Define Your Brand.

Another trick of some successful senior scientists is to use clothing to help define their personal brands.  “I have taken to wearing white. It is a way for people to easily recognize me,” said an astronomer and filmmaker. “Everything I own is grey, black, or a pattern with both,” said a physics professor.  I also heard from scientists who consistently wore Western wear and others who were proud of their tattoos. Cultivating a distinctive look can help you connect with your colleagues and the public.

Postdocs, Beware: The Wrong Image Can Turn Off Your Mentors.

If you are at the stage of your career where you need to impress senior scientists in order to land your next job, it may be safer to dress conservatively. One senior planetary scientist told me that she takes the outfits of her colleagues very seriously. “You can get away with looking like Einstein if you ARE Einstein, and otherwise, you just look like a loser.”

A postdoc also told me that he felt like he fit in better with senior scientists when he dressed more like one. “Dressing like an ‘adult’,” he said “made me feel like an adult who was ready to be a professional scientist.”

There’s Still Room for Fun.

The comments I received sent the message that appearances do matter to our scientific colleagues.

But the good thing is that being a scientist—a senior one at least—comes with tremendous freedom to decide which image we would like to project. Dressing more formally may win us points in administrative and political circles. Wearing more daring clothing can help you make a strong impression with the public. Thankfully, there’s more than one way to do it right.

As one scientist from the Netherlands told me, “I think the biggest difference is made if your outfit shows that you take care of your clothes and yourself.” That sounds like good marketing advice. Thanks to everyone for the feedback!

P.S. For more thoughts about how women scientists should dress, you might enjoy this article about a double standard for men and women in science.

Marc J. Kuchner ( is an astrophysicist at NASA, a country songwriter, and the author of the book Marketing for Scientists: How To Shine In Tough Times. His website can be found at

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The Marie Curie Actions: Tips to Apply for a Postdoctoral Fellowship

6. June 2013

Rocío Borrego-Varillas 

Are you about to finish your Ph.D. and thinking of doing a postdoc? If so, the Marie Curie Actions Research Fellowship Program (MC) could be a great opportunity for you. A European Union (EU) initiative to promote research and innovation, the MC is one of the most renowned postdoctoral fellowship programs. As Yanina Shevchenko pointed out in a recent Bright Futures post, “having your own funding not only looks good on your resume; it also provides you with some flexibility in choosing a research group.” These fellowships are a good way to achieve this goal.

Individual MC grants are available to experienced researchers, regardless of their nationality, through three programs: Intra-European Fellowships for Europeans who wish to carry out projects in the EU, International Outgoing Fellowships for Europeans willing to pursue their projects outside the EU and International Incoming Fellowships for non-Europeans who wish to receive research training in the EU.

Apart from the generous funding (they are probably the best paid postdoctoral fellowships in Europe), these fellowships provide young scientists the opportunity to join an excellent research group and gain experience abroad. This allows you not only to expand your technical knowledge, but also to learn practical skills that will be useful for your career. Additionally, fellows are provided with a monthly stipend to cover expenses derived from research training.

However, the MC is very competitive—the acceptance rate is around 16 percent. To give you an idea, the last Intra-European Fellowship call received more than 3,700 proposals, of which almost 3,000 had a score above 70/100. Only those with scores above 89/100 received funding. Writing a good proposal is crucial and can be the deciding factor in getting your application funded. Below are some tips to help you apply successfully:

• Attend a workshop. Many universities organize colloquia and workshops about the program, so stay tuned for these events at your institution.

• Prepare in advance. Take into account that writing the proposal requires a lot of time (it took me three weeks!), so plan well in advance.

• Be sure your application is complete. The referees check carefully to see if all the parts of the application have been covered, so be sure you have addressed every point. It may be useful to structure your proposal with subheadings and sections, closely following the “Guide for applicants”.

Be aware of the aims of the framework programme. “In each framework programme (currently FP 7), there are particular points that are supported with increased emphasis,” says Dr. Zsuzsanna Major, a former MC fellow at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics. “It is very useful for the proposal to be aware of these particular aims while writing it."

• Avoid vague statements and provide specific examples. Don’t use generic phrases that could be applied to any field in any context. For example, instead of writing “this project will help to develop professional skills,” state that “the fellow will supervise two Masters students and help the group leader to write grant proposals. This will allow him/her to cultivate professional skills such as leadership and fundraising.” You can also include any relevant training courses that you plan to take at the host institution or professional societies you belong to (see the OSA Young Professionals Program).

• Be realistic. The project must be ambitious but feasible to complete in 1-2 years. Give a detailed plan of tasks and objectives including a Gantt chart. Provide a backup plan in case some parts of the project fail.

• Ask for advice. Your own university or the host institution should be able to help you with legal issues or other questions about the application.

• Get feedback from your peers. In addition to reviewing your proposal several times with your future supervisor, I also recommend getting feedback from colleagues whom you trust. I sent my proposal and the evaluation criteria to two of my peers and asked them to act as referees. Their revisions were tremendously helpful.

If you would like to apply for a MC fellowship, the call for 2013 is now open with a deadline of 14 August. Good luck!

Rocío Borrego-Varillas ( received her Ph.D. from the University of Salamanca, Spain. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Universitat Jaume I, Spain and has been recently awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship to conduct her research at the Politecnico di Milano, Italy.

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Networking My Way to a New Job

6. June 2013

Miaochan Zhi

Every job search is different, but there are certain tactics that you can apply to most situations. I have often been told about the importance of networking, and that’s exactly how I found my new job at a national institute: I practiced my elevator talk and seized every opportunity to speak to experienced researchers in my field.

During a symposium I attended, a speaker mentioned an available position in a national institute where I have always wanted to work. After his talk, I approached him and asked him about the opening. It turned out that this position had opened only a few days before, so I was able to get in the door early. Fortunately for me, we had already become acquainted during other conferences and he knew my work pretty well. This worked to my advantage, and I got the job two weeks later without going through the normal interview process.

Through personal contacts, I was also able to learn about unadvertised positions. For example, I started chatting informally with a professor about his research during a poster session at a conference.  He mentioned that he had a postdoc position opening up, but that he was looking to find potential applicants from friends and colleagues rather than by advertising externally. By the end of our conversation, he had invited me to apply. Had I not approached him to talk about something else entirely, I never would have known that the opportunity even existed! Building personal relationships with colleagues is extremely valuable.

Even in instances when I didn’t land a job as a direct result of networking, I gained some very valuable advice. I talked to newly hired assistant professors to get a sense of what their lives and work were like. I asked them what they wished they had done differently in their own careers, and whether they have been able to benefit from their experience. Based on this input, I have discovered that running a lab is actually a lot like managing a startup company. As a result, I have started to pay attention to lab management resources and attended workshops to learn about how to handle conflicts among my team.

My colleagues also helped me to discover other helpful resources for job searching. I thought I knew many of the online job sites, such as,, etc. However, a friend who recently moved to a faculty position used sites that I hadn’t even heard of: and

In addition to making the most of your network, you must also plan for your future and be prepared for the opportunities that arise. I knew that I was ultimately interested in biomedical imaging, so I made an effort to branch out into that area of research over the past few years. I always have a few recommendation letters ready to go, along with an up-to-date CV that I have revised many times. Because I had thought ahead, I was able to submit an application within a week of finding the right job opening. 

Miaochan Zhi ( is a research physicist at NIST. She received her Ph.D. in ultrafast optics from Texas A&M University.

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