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Choosing Your PhD Supervisor

Choosing the right PhD supervisor can make a huge difference to how successful you are in your project - your research can become a frustrating and lonely process if you do not have a good supervisor to support you when you need help.

Our tips will help you choose the right PhD supervisor for you.

1. Know your topic

Before doing anything else, you should have identified your PhD research topic.

This means you can then choose a supervisor who is a good fit academically, and is interested and enthusiastic about the project you are undertaking.

Ideally, they will be someone who has expertise in the area you are looking to study, and it's important that a prospective supervisor’s expertise lines up with the research topic you want to pursue with your PhD.

However, be aware that although a potential supervisor has spent the past 15 or 25 years researching and writing about a particular topic, does not mean they will always be keen to guide you through your PhD on it for the next 3 or 4 years.

2. Look at current research

Again, you want to work with a supervisor that is actually interested in the topic you wish to study.

The problem is, previous research interests won't always be the best indicator of this. Just because someone worked on proteins in the respiratory chain of the sleeping sickness parasite twenty years ago, doesn't mean they want to revisit this area now.

However, other academics might be keen on the idea of revisiting their earlier work with an enhthusiastic new student, especially if there are any lose ends you could work on together. This could be something you mention in your research proposal.

All of this might not seem like a problem if you're applying for an advertised project, but it's still worth investigating how interested they are and their level of experience in the topic.

3. Assess their supervision experience

This includes both past and present students.

Supervising a PhD student requires certain skills, including people management, patience, mentoring, and pastoral support. These aren't the same skills it takes to write an academic study, or even teach undergraduates, but they are needed all the same.

All academics can gain them (more or less) but the best way to check if someone really has them is to see if they've supervised before.

Read through their saff profile online, and find out if your potential supervisor has mentored anyone in the past. If they do have successful supervision experience behind them, then this is an encouraging sign.

However, it's important to realise that some great supervisors don't end up mentoring lots of PhD students, especially if their area of research is fairly specialised.

On the other hand, someone with no experience won't necessarily make a bad supervisor. They will still want you to complete your studies and gain your doctorate.

So, if an academic who has just started out in their career looks like a great fit for your PhD, then it's worth going with them, as they will do their best to find the help they need to support you.

Remember that a supervisor may be responsible for more than one PhD student, simultaneously. They might be part of the same lab group, working on related experiments, or pursuing different projects in the same field.

It’s also likely that an established academic will have supervised students before. This past and present supervision experience is worth investigating.

Previous supervisions are a good indicator that an academic can mentor a PhD to completion. But, if your potential supervisor is currently supervising other postgraduates, it’s worth confirming they’ll have time to support your project too.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with a supervisor having lots of current PhDs (being part of a group can be a positive experience) but this can lead to a busy supervisor that doesn't have time for questions and support.

4. Ask students for their opinions

You want a supervisor who will have the time and dedication to supervise you properly, and offers constructive criticism on your work.

Some supervisors prefer to let the student proceed on their own and not get involved with how their research is progressing.

Asking fellow students about their experiences is a great way to find out what they will be like to work with.

It might even be possible for you to track down individuals mentored by the supervisor you’re thinking of selecting, and politely asking them about their experiences.

The kinds of questions you may want to ask could include: ‘What is their supervision style?’; ‘How useful was their feedback?’; ‘Could you correspond with them efficiently i.e. over email?’.

Try not to be to over-bearing, but don’t be afraid to ask what you might deem to be ‘silly’ or ‘naive’ questions. After all, you’ve got to start somewhere.

5. Arrange a visit

It is also important that your personalities do not clash and that you get on reasonably well with your supervisor.

This doesn't mean becoming best friends, but if there are fundamental differences in your personalities, it will not be a pleasant experience for either of you.

If possible, arrange a face-to-face meeting so you can find out more about them, their character and check that you won't have any problems getting along with them.

After all, they will be playing a significant role in your life over the next few years.

6. Make a shortlist

Once you have found five or six potential supervisors that are interested in your research topic, and you are satisfied with their supervision experience and/or personality and student feedback, it's time to narrow down your list.

Arranging visits with each one will help with this, as you can get a feel for their personality and whether they are someone you could work with for the next few years.

Think about which supervisors excite you and share a similar passion for your topic (as well as all the other factors above!).

Once you have put together a shortlist, you can start thinking about filling out your application forms.

Finally...

In the worst case scenario it may be possible to transfer to a different supervisor, but this is a situation you should try and avoid by putting a bit of time and effort into finding the right person to supervise you from the start.

Also keep in mind that your supervisor will probably be your primary referee when searching for postdoctoral jobs, as well as a stepping stone into your chosen career.

Having someone who kows the extent of your abilities and can vouch for your good character can make a significant difference in getting your first job.

Further information

For more tips and advice on applying for a PhD, please see: