Finding the Right PhD Supervisor
It is not an exaggeration to say that a supervisor can make or break someone’s PhD experience – many students will cite their supervisors as the key factor for helping them enjoy and succeed in their PhD, or for making their journey a terrible struggle.
Finding the right supervisor is perhaps one of the most important factors for ensuring that you have a good, healthy, enjoyable and successful PhD experience. You may need to spend some extra time searching out the right supervisor for you, but this time is an excellent investment and ensures that you start your PhD knowing that you will be well supported to do the best research you can do.
What is a supervisor?
Every PhD candidate will be assigned a supervisor (or sometimes several, depending on their project). This person may also be called an advisor.
Understand that a PhD is not like a job where you report to a boss; or school, where you submit assignments to be graded. A supervisor is not a boss or a teacher. They supervise and advise, as the name suggests, but they are not there to tell you what to do or how to do it.
Supervisors are responsible for giving you the right guidance and advice for you to design your research project and conduct your research effectively. They should be there to provide the academic and pastoral support you need to work independently and successfully throughout your PhD.
A good supervisor should encourage and challenge your thinking, offer reading suggestions, and ensure that you understand the decisions you take towards your research and that you conduct those decisions with good ethical practice, integrity and rigour.
Finally, supervisors should also offer holistic support for your personal wellbeing. As well as encouraging your academic progress, they should also take an interest in supporting your personal and professional development too.
Choose support over prestige
Be careful to not be unduly influenced by an academic’s fame and reputation. A professor may be very established and well known in their field for their numerous publications and extensive research. It is tempting to believe that if someone is an established authority in a subject, that they will also be a good supervisor for your research.
However, these academic accolades will mean little to you if the supervisor is ultimately not able to give you the support you need, if they are difficult to work with or cannot give you the right amount of time and guidance to enable the success of your own work.
Be aware that famous academics, that are very prolific in publishing and in overseeing and conducting research projects, are often also very busy people. They may frequently be on research leave, travelling or juggling diverse commitments. While it may sound good to say you have this esteemed professor as a supervisor, in reality, their busy schedules may mean that you barely get to see them or that communication with them is sporadic and scant. This lack of contact time will become increasingly frustrating as you progress in your research and writing, and find that you are not able to get sufficient feedback and guidance.
It would be far more beneficial to your research and overall wellbeing to seek out a supervisor who is able to offer the time, energy and guidance to support you and the work you aim to do. Look for someone who maintains a similar set of values and working style to you.
Finally, aim to work with a supervisor who is kind and who has a genuine interest in your wellbeing, academic and otherwise. A good working relationship with clear, effective, regular communication and care will go a long way in helping you to produce high-quality research and be happy while doing it.
When you have found a few people you think you might like to work with, email them and try to initiate a conversation. Start by introducing yourself, explain your intention to pursue PhD study and tell them a little bit about the research you intend to do. Then, ask if they are currently taking on new students to supervise and if they would consider supervising you.
You should be able to get a sense of how each person works and how supportive they will be of you as a student through some of these initial exchanges. If they seem forthcoming and willing, request a phone call or online meeting to talk in more detail with them about what you intend to do. Conversely, if they are sporadic with replying to your emails or do not seem to be very engaged with what you are saying, this is also a good sign that this person is probably not someone you want to work with in the long term.
If they prefer to continue communicating via email, be sure to maintain consistent, clear correspondence with them and reply promptly. A lot can be gained just from email exchanges, and they can help you to develop a firm relationship even before you begin your programme.
It may feel time-consuming looking for the right supervisor, and it may seem easier to leave it up to the university to assign someone to you. However, think of this initial scouting time as an investment. It may take a little extra time and require some additional leg-work, but once you have found the right fit, you can begin your PhD with the assurance of a good working relationship and the right support to see you through the duration of your research.
Read next/second in series: Dealing with a Difficult Supervisor in research and academia
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