Student Perspective: Advice for Finding a Ph.D. Advisor

Bryan Christ
February 15, 2023

One benefit of the School of Data Science’s (SDS) Ph.D. in Data Science program is that you do not need to start the program with an advisor, which takes pressure out of the admissions process and allows you to have time to explore your research interests and find a good fit for an advisor while in the program. However, it can also be nerve-wracking to try to find an advisor, so this is meant to give you some advice on strategies for finding an advisor.

Start with Your Faculty Mentor

Every Data Science Ph.D. student is assigned a faculty mentor coming into the program, who is there to help you transition into Ph.D. life and support you. The school tries to pair students with a faculty mentor they think aligns with your research interests, so they are often a good place to start in looking for an advisor (this is how I found one of my two co-advisors, Professor Paul Perrin). Do not be afraid to ask your faculty mentor about their research and see if you can get involved in their lab. However, if your faculty mentor’s research interests do not align with your own, there are still plenty of other opportunities to meet an advisor, which will be discussed below.

Professor Paul Perrin speaks at Datapalooza 2022

Attend Lunch and Learns

SDS organizes ‘Lunch and Learns,’ which are lunchtime meetings where faculty come in to talk to current Ph.D. students about their research. The whole goal of this series is to help students find an advisor and get involved in research, so do not be afraid to ask to get involved with one (or more) of the faculty member’s research.

Talk to Core Faculty About their Research

Another great way to meet an advisor is through your coursework. The core coursework faculty are excellent, and many have ongoing research you can get involved in. Do not be shy about asking them to coffee to talk more about their research and see if there are ways you can get involved. This is how I met my other co-advisor, Professor Jon Kropko, through the Data Engineering I core course.

Jon Kropko and students discuss data science around a laptop

Attend School Events

SDS hosts many school-wide events such as holiday parties and beginning of semester welcome back parties, which can be an easy way to network with faculty members. Everyone is very open to talking at these events, so do not be afraid to introduce yourself to faculty members and ask them about their research.

Invite Faculty Members to Coffee

If the above methods do not work, perusing the SDS website is another way to learn about the research different faculty members are doing. The website has a profile for each faculty member that describes their research, so it can be an easy way to find faculty members who have similar interests. If you find someone who you think might be a good fit, do not be afraid to ask them to coffee to learn more about their research. Faculty love discussing their research and will be more than happy to meet with you.


In general, my best advice for finding an advisor is to ask as many different faculty members as possible about their research. SDS faculty members are great, and they love talking about their research. The only way to learn if someone is a good fit for you is to see if the research they are doing and their approach to it aligns with your interests, goals, and preferred mentoring style.