Academic Guidance Timing and importance of student/advisor relationship

Jul 2010
Hey folks, I'm trying pretty hard to make a return to academia, after getting a bachelor's degree in math about 5 years ago and subsequently working as a software engineer. I'm applying to a couple PhD programs near where I live, for admission for Fall 2020.

It seems like the information out there for returning students is a bit sparse, so I figured I would just consult this forum that helped me in the past.

I'm particularly curious about the process of finding an advisor or mentor. Assuming I'm going to a different university than the one I did my undergraduate studies at, how and when am I expected to be connected with an advisor? I've read through many of the professors' fields of interest and such. But I'm curious whether I should be developing some type of relationship with these people before applying. Or, is it customary to be accepted to a program without actually knowing any of the professors?

Any other advice or resources you know of for returning students would be super helpful. Thanks.
Jun 2019
Many students apply, and are even accepted, without having an advisor selected. However, I would definitely start a conversation with potential advisors as early as possible. You'd hate to be accepted and then find that the only professors taking students are working on things you hate.

Start with short, friendly e-mails stating that you are applying/have applied/have been accepted. Talk about your experience, your interests, and what you want to do, and ask if they're willing to meet or phone and discuss possible research opportunities.

Probably most will either ignore your e-mails or forget about them (it's nothing personal). Professors are typically more likely to engage you if you have already been accepted than if you haven't applied yet; keep that in mind. But if you've reached out by e-mail and haven't heard back, reach out again by phone or in person. Worst case scenario, walk into the department office and ask if the chair, graduate program coordinator, or someone else is available for questions. You can even walk around to see who is in their offices and start asking in person.

Try to make it as convenient as possible for the professors. Around a week before classes start, or maybe one or two weeks into classes, are times when they may be less busy than other times of the year. Have your CV, academic transcripts (unofficial is probably OK), GPA, and GRE scores ready to go, just in case.

And, as you said, you can read through the professors' web pages to see not only what their fields of interest are, but usually what they have been publishing lately. This will give you a better idea what research areas they are more likely to want you to work on.

Don't forget that university is expensive. Check if your programs have some kind of scholarship opportunities, but most likely you will be working as either a teaching assistant or a research assistant (or both) for most of your stay. This should be part of the conversation once you've found a potential advisor.