Tips on Finding a Project Advisor for a Masters Thesis in Symbolic Systems

Symbolic Systems M.S. Program

Tips on Finding a Masters Thesis Advisor

The Project Area Statement (PAS) and Advisor Commitment are due by May 1st of the year before you are expected to do your masters thesis. This generally means that students who are admitted to the program without a PAS and thesis (project) advisor must find a project advisor during the first year of matriculation. External applicants (those whose undergraduate training did not occur at Stanford) or Stanford juniors are not expected to submit a PAS or advisor commitment when they apply, whereas coterm applicants who apply during their senior year at Stanford are expected to submit a PAS and advisor commitment as part of their applications (see the FAQ on M.S. admissions for more info on applying).

Students who are admitted without a PAS and Advisor Commitment are assigned to the Director and Associate Director as program advisors, and they, together with the Student Services Officers and other faculty, can provide help and advice in finding a project advisor. But it is the student’s responsibility to identify an acceptable project area and to find a project advisor who is appropriate for the PAS. Here are some tips for finding and approaching a potential project advisor.

  • Do Web research to scout potential advisors and projects: Read a prospective advisor's website, paying particular attention to recent or ongoing work done with students. Do this even if you have taken a course with the professor, and familiarize yourself with the work they do before you meet with them.
  • Familiarize yourself with faculty research by 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 opportunies for students to work with them.
  • Read through listings of research opportunities: The Research Opportunities page on this website provides links to many resources of interest for finding research positions with faculty. Even those aimed at undergraduates are useful to review, as faculty who are looking for undergraduates may also be willing to work with a masters student.
  • Review the list of past thesis advisors: To see and read about past thesis projects done by masters students in our program, you can browse the list of Symbolic Systems Forum presentation announcements for talks given by M.S. Candidates in our program.
  • Talk to other students: Ask in-project Sym Sys M.S. 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. If you do end up taking a large lecture course with a potential advisor (which is helpful and/or necessary in many cases prior to doing research with the instructor), 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 thier 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, e.g. through informational meetings and priior 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, but 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, e.g. in the Autumn and/or Witner Quarter 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.  

Changes: You can change to a different advisor later if your interests change. This is a delicate issue sometimes, because once you have worked with someone, they have invested time in you and will often expect you to follow through. Maintain good communication with every professor you are working with about your commitment to working with them in the future. If you do wind up changing project advisors, you must notify the program directorate (Director, Associate Director, and Student Services Officers) about this.

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