Selecting PhD Programs and Advisors

Selecting PhD Programs and Advisors

This document provides basic guidelines for selecting a PhD program and advisor. Pursuers of a PhD degree come from several “camps,” specifically students who are earning concurrent AuD and PhD degrees (joint AuD/PhD program), students who are looking for just a PhD or students who have earned an AuD and are now going back to school for a PhD (successive degrees). These guidelines are for students in any camp, and some may be more relevant to you than others.

CHOOSING A DEGREE

AuD
This is the terminal degree for individuals who are interested in working in a clinical setting. Most programs are four years with a large emphasis on clinical exposure. After three years of in-house coursework and clinical internship experience, students complete a year-long full-time clinical externship. At the completion of this degree, graduates are able to apply for state licensure to practice Audiology and work in clinical settings, such as private practice, hospital, or for hearing aid manufacturers.

Some individuals who earn an AuD have strong interest in pursuing research, which is an available option to some extent. These opportunities arise within labs where the primary investigators hold PhDs and the AuD-holder is considered a “Research Audiologist.”

PhD
This degree is common across several fields and prepares individuals for careers in research, academia and/or industry. The length of these programs vary depending on school, advisor and other student factors, but take at least four years (on average). Most PhD programs do not provide clinical experience for students, as the emphasis is on research: experimental methodology, statistical techniques and expanding the knowledge base. Students gain experience through work in research labs, teaching assistantships (TA), presentations and collaborations with other researchers.

AuD/PhD
Joint AuD/PhD programs are intended for those who are just entering the field and are interested in clinically-oriented research. The scope of these programs typically includes both clinical experience as well as research methodology. AuD/PhD degree holders are particularly well suited for jobs in academia, as their clinical training allows them to teach and supervise students in a clinical AuD program, while also running a productive research lab.

Joint degree programs offer some advantages over achieving each degree separately. The coursework for the two degrees often overlaps, which allows certain course to serve “double duty,” fulfilling requirements for both degrees. Joint program students will typically complete both degrees in a fewer number of years than those who complete separate AuD and PhD programs (successive degrees).

CHOOSING A PROGRAM

After you’ve chosen, or at least have some idea, of the degree(s) you wish to pursue, you must choose a university. Universities differ not only in the degrees they offer (AuD, PhD, or joint AuD/PhD), but also in the structure of the programs themselves. Other documents on this website include lists of PhD and AuD/PhD programs. Below are some of the questions to consider when looking at your options. Most of these considerations apply to students interested in either PhD or AuD/PhD programs; choosing an AuD program is not addressed in this document.

Program duration and graduation rate
Typical “AuD only” programs are 4 years long, but the length for PhD and AuD/PhD programs vary by school. Most universities will provide detailed explanation of their program structure and coursework required for completion. Some provide statistics for their graduation rate, or the percentage of enrolled students who complete the program in the expected timeframe. AuD/PhD programs tend to vary greatly in their duration, and students seeking these joint programs should pay special attention to each program’s expected duration.

Some programs allow students to work part-time towards their degree. This option may be particularly attractive to successive degree students, who have already obtained an AuD but are interested in a PhD. These students can sometimes fulfill coursework requirements for their PhD in the evenings, while working as a clinical or research Audiologist during the day. Program duration for part-time students will vary, and this information will be particularly important for students who wish to work part-time.

Another item to look into for joint AuD/PhD programs is how you graduate with your degrees. In some programs, students graduate first with one degree (most often the AuD) and then fulfill the additional requirements for the PhD. However, in other programs all requirements for both degrees must be met before graduating with both degrees simultaneously.

Opportunities to gain research experience
Practical research experience should be a priority for PhD and AuD/PhD students. Concurrent AuD/PhD students often, but not necessarily, start gaining research experience in their first year of graduate school. University labs and grants typically fund some number of Research Assistantship positions for graduate students (number of positions/availability depends on the size of the program and lab). Students who obtain research assistantships typically work 10-20 hours per week in their professor’s lab and gain first hand research experience. These positions also allow for networking within the research community, and can be helpful for finding a PhD advisor and committee. Research Assistantships vary from university to university thus, information on a program’s Research Assistantships is often helpful in deciding on a program.

Other funding opportunities
In addition to student loans, other funding mechanisms that are available to graduate students include scholarships, fellowships, and graduate/teaching assistantships. Funding opportunities are sometimes need-based, but often competitive in nature and available to first year students. Information regarding a program’s funding opportunities for students can also help determine which school may be right for you. Alternatively, some PhD and AuD/PhD students may apply for non-university funding. The National Institutes of Health and other such funding mechanisms have programs that fund graduate students and researchers. These options are typically explored after some time is spent in the graduate program, and the student has selected an advisor.

Program size and related departments
The number of professors in the department and the number of students in each class are also important to consider. Student/teacher ratios will help you determine the amount of individual attention and access you may have to your professors. Additionally, the relative size of the university will affect the possibility of interdisciplinary work. Elective courses in related departments, such as linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience, are helpful in selecting a direction for your research. Many PhD and AuD/PhD programs strongly encourage taking courses in other departments, and these options will depend on what is available at a given university.

Personal considerations
Often, personal issues are an important part of the decision making process. Try to decide upfront whether you will be willing to relocate for graduate school, or if you need to stay in a certain area. Often these factors depend on family and significant others. Graduate school will be a major commitment for you, but the decision also affects the other important people in your life. Be sure to include them in the decision-making process.


HOW TO PICK AN ADVISOR

While obtaining an AuD, you may have clinical mentors or a mentor for your capstone research project. However, in the pursuit of a PhD, your advisor is integral to earning your degree, and some mentor - mentee relationships turn into colleague relationships that last a lifetime. For successive degree-seekers, it can be the advisor who determines which program you choose. Below are some of the important topics that should be considered.

Research interests
The main role of your advisor is to mentor your research, so your own research interests should align with theirs. Your dissertation research should add to the scope of your advisor’s work. Read their lab websites and program descriptions, but most importantly, read their recent publications. Often, university sites are not the most up to date when it comes to what a potential advisor is currently pursuing in the lab. Furthermore, when your research pursuits are aligned with your advisor’s, they are much more likely to be able to aid you when planning projects or if you run into technical difficulties.

Personality congruity
Again, you are going to be spending the majority of your time working with your advisor, so making sure you can work with this person is vital. This can be difficult to judge while you are attending a class or reading a website. So, setting up an interview will help you get a “feel” of what your interactions with your advisor will be. During an interview, it is also a good time to ask about what the advisor’s expectations are for you. How much time will you be spending as a “student” and when will you be able to be an independent researcher? What are other students’ lives like when working with this advisor? You can also talk with former and current students from their lab in this regard.

Lab facilities
This is where you look at the physical setting of where you will be spending most of your time. Consider the equipment, location, office space and so on. The big question here is will you be able to do what you need to do? If you are looking at animal research, where are the animals housed; if you are looking at human research, is the lab conveniently placed for participant recruitment? Additionally, look at how many undergraduate, graduate and post-doc students are in the lab.

Advisor output
Examine the recent publication history on PubMed, Ovid or GoogleScholar to get an idea of how often your potential advisor is publishing. You can also review meeting programs to look for their recent presentations at conferences. Ideally, you will be able to find an updated CV with all of this information included, but sometimes you must be the one to uncover it.

Also consider what the former and current students are publishing or presenting to ascertain what you may accomplish during your time in the lab. Get in touch with former students to learn where they are employed, or, in other words, what their career trajectory has been since being a student in your potential advisor’s lab.

Advisor income
This is not in reference to what your advisor gets paid, rather, where their funding is derived. Are they working from grants? Would you be funded through their grants? Do they have teaching or clinical responsibilities beyond what they do in the lab?

Current and former students
Gathering input from other students has been mentioned several times thus far, and they provide a lot of valuable information because they have already done what you are planning to do. When you contact these students, or anyone for that matter, remember to be courteous. Plus, these students will also relay their opinions to your potential advisor. People remember good impressions, but are much more likely to talk about bad impressions.

University requirements
Some universities require advisors to be a full professor, others do not. The university’s website should be able to clarify these requirements. For example, in some AuD/PhD programs your advisor can be different from your dissertation committee chair, as the requirements for one may different than the other.