Choosing an Advisor and Research Area

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The research area and advisor a student chooses can have a significant impact on their educational experience. We have compiled a list of suggestions on how to go about choosing a research area and a doctoral advisor. 

Selecting Your Field of Study


Find a broad subject that inspires you and strongly motivates you. You are the best judge of what type of work you like, whether theoretical, numerical and simulation-based, experimental, etc. Find a subject that resonates with your strengths and interests.


As you choose a subject, you are choosing the scientific and engineering community that works on it. These are the people that will judge your work, that you will collaborate with, and that, possibly, you will interview for. Make sure your interests and values are aligned with those of the community you choose to work in.

Consider Relevance

Most research areas in Chemical Engineering at UCSB combine scientific elegance with practical impact to greater or lesser degrees. Research areas are in a constant state of flux. New technologies and problems appear; yesterday’s problems are solved and go out of fashion; old problems resurface in new clothes and lead to wonderful new discoveries. Choose a subject that will have relevance in future years.

Choosing an Advisor

The choice of a research advisor is likely to be the most important decision that a first-year graduate student makes. It is necessary to devote significant thought to this choice. Students should be aware of the mechanism by which they are assigned to research advisors, and take full advantage of the information available to them in making their choices.

Assignments of first-year students to research advisors are made just before winter quarter.  The department considers it essential that first-year graduate students investigate and educate themselves of available research areas and opportunities.  For that reason, no Ph.D. student will be considered to have a research advisor prior to that time.  Occasionally, students may be involved in short research rotations in the summer before they start, which are perfectly fine.  However, rotations are not a commitment by either the student or the rotation advisor to join that group.

During October

In October of each year, weekly faculty research presentations provide a formal overview that facilitates first-year graduate students’ exploration of research opportunities.  Each faculty member briefly describes his or her research program, current research projects, and opportunities for new students to join.  Attendance is required of all first-year graduate students at all sessions.

During October and November

New graduate students should approach the faculty research presentations as a preview of opportunities, and work on their own to develop a significantly more nuanced and informed exposure.  Thus during Fall quarter, students should meet informally and individually with several faculty members to discuss areas of research and specific projects in more detail (typically 5-7).  They should talk to senior graduate students and attend regular group meetings to learn about research groups of particular interest.  Meeting at least 5 faculty members and attending multiple group meetings are essential steps in selecting an appropriate research advisor.

Advisor selection and assignment

By the end of the third week of November, students must provide a list of five, rank-ordered choices of advisors to the Graduate Program Coordinator.  The student must have met with each of the five choices listed to discuss research opportunities.  A one-paragraph summary of the research topic the student wishes to pursue with their first-choice faculty advisor, and that advisor’s signature, must also be submitted. The advisor’s signature does not imply consent to an official advising relationship with the student, but is merely an acknowledgement that the advisor has discussed the research topic with the student.  Any student not submitting such a list may be assigned an advisor at the sole discretion of the faculty.   

The Graduate Affairs Committee will review all lists and make assignments based on (1) student preferences and (2) availability of positions in research groups.  The majority of students receive their first choice of advisor.  Hence, it is essential that this choice be made with the utmost care.  The Graduate Affairs Committee makes every effort to finalize research advisor assignments by the end of final exams week in Fall quarter, so that students may begin working with their advisors immediately in January.  

Evaluation Tips

Technical and personal perspectives

From a technical perspective, your interests should be aligned with the advisor’s technical background and research objectives. Be informed about the research quality and reputation of the prospective advisor; relevant information in this regard includes citations, awards, peer recognition, and publication record of the faculty member. From a personal perspective, you should be able to establish an effective work relationship and an open and straightforward communication channel with your advisor. Your advisor should be able to provide you with encouragement, motivation, criticism and moral support throughout a long work effort.

Supervision style

Find out how much supervision and direction the prospective advisor will give you, including the frequency and duration of one-on-one meetings and group meetings. Ask for documents describing the broad area and some of the projects you might be working on. Do not to be overly concerned about the specific problem you will begin your research work with, since that problem might change quickly and will certainly evolve over the duration of a PhD.

Publications and thesis

Find out what the average publication record of former PhD students has been. Read one or two recent theses that have been supervised by this faculty member. This data and an open discussion will help you develop a broad general view for what the advisor’s expectations are. Find out who are the current students working with the advisor and their PhD subjects. Find out when and what conferences current and former students have attended.

Duration and financial support

Find out how long it took former graduate students to complete their PhD theses under the supervision of the prospective advisor. Discuss and develop expectations about what kind of financial support you will be provided with throughout your PhD years.

Career path

You should have clear expectations about what likely career paths will be open for you after graduation. You should know the career paths of the former PhD students of the prospective advisor.