How to Choose a PhD Supervisor
Updated 12 October 2020
You may think that once you have secured a place to study for your PhD, the hard part is over. In fact, it’s now time to select one of the most important parts of your project – your PhD supervisor.
Having the right PhD supervisor can greatly affect your chances of success, so it’s important to think it through and plan wisely. It’s a big decision that takes a good amount of research.
Sometimes PhD students base their choice of university on the opportunity to work with a particular academic and have been planning to do so for many years. But, for others, choosing a PhD supervisor may seem a daunting prospect.
In this article, you will learn what to look for in a great supervisor, how to choose the right person for you and how to make a good first impression.
No matter which way you look at it, your supervisor is important to the success of your PhD. While their experience and interest in the project will help make it possible, their guidance and support can make or break your PhD research.
Your supervisor will work alongside you for several years, so make sure it’s a good match. They will be your friend, conscience, critic and greatest supporter. The relationship might be difficult or strained from time to time; you need to make sure this is someone you are happy to take feedback from and that you will respect that feedback.
You also want someone who will challenge you. While it would be great to hear nothing but praise throughout your research, this is unlikely to motivate you to achieve your potential. A supervisor who points out where you can do better will only help you become better at what you do.
There are no hard guidelines about who can be your PhD supervisor. In general, though, potential candidates are likely to be people you have encountered while doing your undergraduate or postgraduate work, such as:
- A lecturer or a master’s supervisor
- People from your university department whose work falls into the same area as yours
- An academic from another university (or, even, country)
Always check your university guidelines before settling on a supervisor to make sure they fit the specifications.
Where to Look
- University websites – These can quickly and easily provide you with a lot of the information you need. You can find out what your potential supervisor has studied, is studying now, who they may have mentored in the past and what their current research areas are, as well as their email address and other contact details.
- Academic blogs – These are a great way to learn what academics are really feeling about current research topics and which names are active in your field of interest. It's a good idea to follow key academic blogs throughout your PhD.
- LinkedIn – Social networks like LinkedIn are great places to look for and connect with academics and read about their previous work. Begin your networking as early as you can to establish some good relationships that you can benefit from in the future.
- Academic textbooks – Look at articles and textbooks relevant to your research and see who wrote them or helped with the research at the time.
- Former students – If you can find former students or read their dissertations, you will be able to discover who mentored them and what their experience was. Was it successful? If so why or why not? Is there someone else they wish they had worked with?
Choosing the right supervisor can be a daunting task. Here are several steps to help you choose the right supervisor:
Consider Your Research Proposal
It is a good idea to have an idea of who your supervisor is going to be before finalising or submitting your research proposal, if required. However, you may already have a good idea of what you want to research and will be looking for a supervisor who might work well with your ideas.
If there is a particular supervisor you want to work with, be realistic about whether their area of expertise is relevant to your proposal or think about how you might be willing to edit your proposal after meeting them.
Go Through Your Shortlist
Use the tips above to create a shortlist of a few candidates to further look at. There are a few factors to consider when going over your list:
- What kind of supervisory experience do they have? Supervising a PhD student requires management skills, people skills, mentoring skills, patience, empathy and understanding. You want a supervisor who is going to help you stay on track and meet your goals, while understanding when you hit a roadblock or need some extra help.
Find out if your potential supervisor has been a supervisor before and, if so, what kind of success they had. Find out what research areas they supervised. It’s also helpful to note whether or not your potential supervisor is currently supervising another student and what time they might have for your project.
- Are they researching in a relevant area? It’s important that your supervisor is familiar with research, especially the kind of research you will be looking to do, and that their expertise lies in the same field you are studying. Check out anything your potential supervisor has previously published or has had published about them.
- While your potential supervisor may have done previous research in your area of study, it’s important to note whether or not they are interested in current research. You may find a supervisor that embraces the idea of revisiting their research and looking at it from a new angle, or looking at what’s new in the area. You may also find a supervisor who has little knowledge of the current research but is very enthusiastic about what you’re presenting. Both avenues should be explored.
- When choosing a potential supervisor, it’s beneficial to speak to students they have supervised or taught in the past. Make sure you find out what kind of supervisory style they have, whether or not they were approachable, whether they had a lot of insight to offer and how easy they were to correspond with. Try to attend some lectures, socials or orientations that they may be attending and/or speaking at to try and gauge their personality and how they interact with their students.
- As with any close working relationship, a good personality match is a must. If you are someone who adheres to strict timelines, you will want a supervisor who is just as respectful of your agenda. If you like to work late at night, you may want someone who is also a night owl and can answer any questions you have. If you value quick responses to your emails or texts, you want to make sure that you have a supervisor who can meet these demands.
A good personality match is essential not only in a working sense but in a personal one too. If your supervisor is someone who you just simply don’t connect well with or feel uncomfortable being yourself with, then the relationship most likely isn’t going to be fruitful.
Qualities to Look For
Going through your shortlist, make sure your candidates have the qualities that you find important in a supervisor:
- Are they friendly and approachable?
- Do you feel inspired by the work they have done or are currently doing?
- Are they enthusiastic about your proposal?
- Do they possess the right kind of knowledge to help with your work?
- Do they have a similar working style to you?
- Do they value the same working procedures that you do, perhaps punctuality, neatness, etc.?
Of course, choosing your PhD supervisor is only half the process; they need to choose you too. Your first contact is important, so you will want to make a good first impression.
Usually, your first contact will be a formal email, much like a job application or your PhD cover letter.
You won’t have to email a copy of your research proposal at this stage, as it's likely you will want to make edits to it after choosing your supervisor, but it is a good idea to include your CV.
Make sure your CV is up-to-date, all spelling and grammar is correct, and that it’s formatted properly. If you fail to impress with your CV and introductory email, you’re going to have to work a lot harder to gain your potential supervisor’s interest.
- Ensure you are using the correct title when making contact. Are they a professor or a doctor?
- Do your research and speak knowledgeably about their field of study and past publications.
- Even if you are contacting more than one candidate, do not send a generic email. Tailor each message properly.
- Keep your email brief, clear and concise. Clearly outline your skills, knowledge and academic background. It is important to show your enthusiasm and commitment to your PhD and the research area you are exploring.
- Remember that academics are busy people. Do not demand an answer right away and do not hassle them for a response. Make sure that you contact them in good time so you have plenty of time before your application deadline.
- Remember that finding the right supervisor is important and this may mean that you will face rejection. Have faith that the right person is worth waiting for.
Meet Face to Face
If all goes well and you have generated interest in your proposal, you will want to meet in person with your potential supervisor. If your potential supervisor isn’t local, request to arrange a Skype call.
Make sure you are prompt, dressed appropriately and carrying a current copy of your CV and research proposal, if you have one. Although this meeting should be quite relaxed, it is a good idea to prepare in a similar way to your PhD interview.
Make sure you are knowledgeable and interested in their areas of research and published work and can talk confidently about it.
Ask relevant questions about what both of your responsibilities would be when working together. What do they expect from their PhD students? What do they think of your research proposal/research ideas? How do they think they can support you?
Indicate any personal circumstances that may come into play at some point in your research. Is your supervisor sympathetic and accommodating?
Remember to convey enthusiasm for your project. If you are not completely sold on your research idea, then no one else is going to be.
Choosing a PhD supervisor is a big step in your academic career and not one that should be rushed. Remember to check your deadlines so that you have plenty of time to do your research and prepare your documents.
It’s also important to note that you may do everything right and still face rejections. This is unlikely to be a reflection on you or your work. There are many professional or personal reasons why a potential supervisor might not take on your project.
Persevere and try again. It is well worth the effort to find a supervisor who is the right fit for you.
If your research is strong and your proposal well thought out, you are well set to thrive during your doctoral program. While a good supervisor will help with this, remember that, ultimately, the hard work is up to you.