Stanford University

Tips on Finding a Primary Thesis Advisor

Here are some tips for finding and approaching a potential project advisor.

  • Do online research to scout potential advisors and projects: Read a prospective advisor's website, paying particular attention to recent or ongoing work done with students. Familiarize yourself with the work they do before you meet with them.
  • Attending research seminar talks: Seminars such as the Symbolic Systems Research Seminar (SYMSYS 280, 1 unit S/NC only, repeatable, offered Autumn, Winter, and Spring Quarters) and other department-based seminar series are good places to learn about faculty research, and you may want to speak with them afterward about current opportunities for students to work with them.
  • Talk to other students: Ask in-project students about their project advisors, research groups, and how they found their thesis advisor.
  • Take a course and go to office hours: Your primary advisor will ideally be someone with whom you have taken a course. Generally, enrolling in smaller seminars is recommended as seminars provide more opportunity for interaction and discussion. Take advantage of office hours to get to know the faculty member better and potentially start a conversation about their area of study and your own research interests. The best courses for leading into a research relationship are graduate courses with a research project component.
  • Talk to faculty on an informational basis before you ask to work with them: Most faculty are willing to talk about their research during their office hours, but you should approach this with as much information before the meeting as you can get (e.g. by reading their website and published research ahead of time). It is okay to talk about your own interests, but you should relate them to what you know about the professor with whom you are meeting, and ask questions before deciding that this is someone you want to work with.
  • Do Independent Research/Independent Study courses and/or limited commitment research projects with faculty before asking them to commit to being your thesis advisor: Once you have established a common research interest with a faculty member, through informational meetings and prior reading, you can ask a faculty member if they are willing to supervise you to do a one-quarter project with a well-defined goal, which might serve as a lead-in to a thesis project. Ideally, this should be something that will be useful to the faculty member regardless of whether it continues past this stage. Good research and communication style/personality fit is important, and both you and a prospective advisor will be in a better position to judge this after working together for a while. It is best to do this early in your M.S. career, before the PAS is due.
  • Ask for recommendations: Some faculty may be unavailable because they have too many advisees already, have other commitments, or may have planned leaves of absence. If a faculty member is unavailable to serve as your advisor, you may ask them if they can recommend another potential advisor, and then you can repeat the process.  
  • Get to know others who are working with a prospective advisor: Through further discussions, you can ask a faculty member about joining lab meetings, and/or see about working together with others (graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, or other collaborators) who are working with the person you are interested in advising you. Your M.S. project may wind up being a collaboration with one of these people, with the professor supervising both/all of you and your collaborators.
  • Follow up: you may need to follow up a few times if you do not get a response to your first email. Find out their office hours or make an appointment to discuss whether they are willing to serve as your advisor.