So, first off, there's the obvious point that whomever it is you are thinking about working with, you should be interested in the area of research they are working in. You should have a pretty clear idea of what area/project/vastly-important-topic you want to delve into for grad school (or, ya know, for-EVH-er). Read as many papers in this area as possible. Look at the authors. Check out the school's websites (and pray they have been updated recently). Ask around in your home department from people who are in similar or related fields. Make a list of people and make sure you have a few options. Don't just limit yourself to a single person, because you may honestly hate that person in real life and then where will you be? Back-ups never hurt anyone, so long as you don't tell someone they are you back-up choice :)
Now that you've got your list, there are things you will want to know before wasting your time and money applying. This is, in reality, a business decision. You should treat it like one. If you can't get along with your business partner, you are less likely to do well in your field. Not that it isn't possible to suck it up and get through grad school, but it is infinitely better to like your adviser, or at least respect the person. As females, too, learning that you're not going to be working with a chauvinistic pig (and for some reason academia has a good deal of them around) will make your life so much easier! So, I've spent a lot of time discussing what makes an adviser a good one with my husband. There is no hard and fast rules, but here are a few things to consider:
- Male or female? Look, some women work better with other women. Some have a really hard time working with women. Know your own preference, and if possible, ask your potential adviser's other students about this (maybe not outright ask them, but finding a polite way to broach the subject, or at least get a feel for how the other students are handling things is perfectly acceptable).
- Older and established, or young and enthusiastic? Ahhh, this is a question I've gone round and round on because it's certainly a tricky one, and very well could be 'tenured or not-quite-tenured?' Both my husband and my advisers are older and have tenure, but I do see the contrast between my interactions and those of my fellow cohort members and the younger members of my department. The younger faculty, while not having as much money or contacts, do tend to have a lot more interaction with their students, and can be less intimidating (or maybe that's just me... :). Anyhow, more established, tenured advisers have more money (generally) which can be incredibly helpful when you can't get a TA spot for a quarter. They also tend to know EVERYONE, which is a total plus. But there can also be health problems that can knock them out for long periods of time, they may take sabbaticals and be totally unreachable for a year (oh, it happens!), or they may be "past their prime" in terms of their ideas or approaches to your field. Think about this one carefully and really get a feel for how each individual works so that you make the best possible decision for the way you work!
- Kids or childless? Does your potential adviser have strong feelings about children, particularly if you have some during your school years? The last thing you want is them blaming you for them not getting tenure because you took some time off to have a child. I honestly can't imagine what kind of douche would do this, but it does happen. Also, small children on the part of your adviser can mean they are around less, so it is something to consider.
- Approachable or frozen Popsicle? Does your hypothetical adviser like to talk to his students weekly? Daily? Almost never? Is he easy to get a hold of, or is he/she never around? Does he/she make it easy and possible to bring up questions or concerns? How each adviser interacts with their cadre of graduate students is different--some have weekly meetings, others expect their students to seek them out when they are needed. It's a very individual thing, and finding out if their style--whether it be hands-on, or let-you-loose--needs to mesh with your personal style.
- Extra set of hands, or new-projects-R-us? For some programs this is less of an issue than others, but it's good think about whether an adviser is looking to take on a new student for a project they already have going (essentially wanting another set of 'hands' for their own work), or if they are open to the possibility of you creating and carrying out a project of your own choosing and design. If you already have a well-formed idea of what you want to do before entering school, be sure to pick someone who won't expect you to work on cloning mice for their NSF project for the next five years.