You have to find someone you want to learn from.
That is what can make the difference between five years in graduate school and seven years. It can mean the difference between being lost and being directed in a productive manner.
Maybe I got lucky, but my present advisor has rarely let me go in a research direction that didn’t bear fruit of some kind or another. He knew when to shield me from complexity and when to implore me to pursue deeper understanding.
So how might one go about finding such a person?
Start locally. Look at the professors doing research in your school (it’s all on their website). Anyone that looks interesting to you, take note of their office hours and email. Show up or send them a short email expressing that you would like to meet to discuss their research.
That’s all it takes to get started. This can make such an unbelievable difference.
A story to illustrate my point
A friend and I were accepted to graduate school the same year. They took the offer package as it was presented. I asked if it would be possible to arrange a summer job so I could get rooted in Denver, and I got one. I shared this with my friend.
Wait, all you did was ask?
Yup. Politely hinted at how much it would help me and how grateful I would be.
So they tried it, shot an email batch to several professors, and booked a cheap budget-airline flight to go see the professors in person and scope out housing.
They walked away with a $2000 salary bonus for becoming a research assistant in place of a teaching assistant. Turns out a professor had funds available and was looking for someone new. My friend happened to be the first to ask.
In both our cases, money was on the table that we weren’t aware of until we had the audacity to ask for what we wanted (politely, with some tact).
So that’s how it starts. By reaching out to the human behind the web profile and talking to them, seeing how you get along. That relationship is one of the most important ones in your life if you choose to pursue a doctorate. As with any relationship, it needs to be rooted in trust and mutual respect. Which is not something you can assess without talking to them in person.
It all starts with an introduction and a show of curiosity.
Explore different topics, you never know what you will find. When I arrived in graduate school, I was dead set on one particular area and completely assured I would avoid another.
My bias was so bad that when I was first introduced to my advisor, I mentally checked out when I heard mention of the topic I “knew” I was avoiding.
It was only after taking his classes and spending time with him in the moments before/after and in office hours that I began to like his style (despite it being very different than mine), and how well it suited my pace of learning.
He is the best math teacher I have ever had to date, so when he expressed interest in hiring me for the summer, I accepted, trusting he would ease me in to the topics I (thought I) despised (but actually turned out to love). Spending time with those you look up to is essential for your own growth.
TAKE THE TIME TO LEARN AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE WHILE IN SCHOOL.
(Starting with the names of your professors, and then their colleagues, and then what they do, etc. We’re a friendly bunch, I swear.)