Selecting the Right Supervisor for your PhD

Picking the right supervisor is, after finding your topic, the single most important factor in determining your success as a PhD student. The right supervisor is, when it comes to doing a PhD, far more important than the University. 

Here are the steps to choosing the right one

1. Find the leading experts in the area of research that you want to work in or if you are set on applying to one particular university find out as much as possible about the professors in the department you want to work in. (You find out who are the leading experts by reading journals, asking other scholars, and doing online research. It doesn’t matter at what university they are based).  

2. Make contact with them. Explain to them your interest in doing a PhD in X and that you are interested in working with them. Ask them whether they think the topic is a suitable one for a PhD and whether they would be willing to supervise you. If Not, move on to the next expert. 

3. If Yes, arrange to meet them in person for a meeting. Go to the University and meet them. Have a written list of questions or topics you want to discuss. See how you get on with them. Your relationship with your supervisor is exactly that – a relationship. You need to find out whether you fit – in terms of personality, research interests, style of working, everything. There needs to be a firm foundation of trust and respect for you to work together. You also need to think – is this the kind of scholar I would like to be? Does this person inspire me by their scholarship and what kind of person they are? Are we a good fit? 

4. If the initial meeting goes well, arrange to meet with the Professor’s current or past PhD students. If you cannot meet them in person, make contact via email or telephone. But do talk to them! Find out what kind of supervisor he or she is. What is it like to have him or her as a supervisor? Does he or she have a record of being difficult or not giving feedback in good time? How many students have successfully achieved their PhD under their supervision? You need to establish what kind of record he or she has and what kind of supervisor they are.

Also be aware that “Big Shots” or superstar scholars don’t always make the best supervisors. They might be so focused on getting their next book or project done that they have little time or inclination to adequately supervise their research students. You want to find someone who has an established record of expertise in your area and has supervised successful PhD students in the past. 

5. Next, based on what you have found out from this informational interviewing you need to determine whether their kind of supervision is compatible with your style of working and to think about what kind of supervisor you want.

Do you want someone who is hands on or hands off? Do you want someone who is going to chase you up and monitor your progress closely? Or are you more comfortable working alone and want someone to discuss your work and progress from time to time? How will he or she react when you want to work remotely in another city for a few months so that you can spend more time with your partner or visit your family abroad? Problems arise when you get a supervisor who is hands on with a student who prefers a hands off relationship or vice versa. You need to know their working style and match that with your natural style.

The aim is to forge a professional relationship that will be sustainable over the course of 3-5+ years and to find a mentor who knows the research territory and who will be your guide on your PhD journey (like Virgil leading Dante through Hell).

Ideally the supervisor will be an acknowledged expert and leading authority in your field who is supportive of your research and who shares his or her knowledge generously. It also helps that he or she connects you to other scholars working in your field and is influential enough that his or her reference pulls weight when or if you apply for academic jobs after your PhD.  

What to Expect

  • A professional mentor and research manager. Set objectives and interim milestones together 
  • Someone who is easy to get along with
  • A muse – they should inspire you
  • An expert in your field of research with a proven track record
  • A connector – someone who can connect you to other scholars in your field
  • A reliable sounding board
  • A guide through the administrative academic jungle 
  • A shoulder to lean on – to an extent. You are comfortable to share your concerns and problems you are facing with him/her 
  • Regular meetings at least once a month
  • Timely, helpful feedback
  • Constructive (not negative or belittling) criticism 

What Not to Expect

  • A friendship (keep it professional and don’t expect to become best pals. This might happen, but it also might not. Personally, I think it’s easier to keep the relationship professional). 
  • Someone who will correct your grammar and spelling or teach you how to write
  • Someone who will chase up after you for late work. If you need someone to chase up after you or motivate you to get work done, you shouldn’t be doing a PhD.   

Single or Double supervision?

I don’t recommend dual supervision unless you are working in an interdisciplinary topic that requires two experts in different fields of research. I don’t recommend this in general because you often get conflicting advice from both Professors which can lead to difficulties trying to please both. Choose one Supervisor where possible. But this does not rule out having other mentors in different fields or departments who can advise and help you. In fact, I would encourage you to find other informal mentors as you progress in your PhD research, but stick to one supervisor where possible. 

Comments (2)
  • These are very useful points. It makes a student work very easy.I did. a thesis in my university for my Msc degree under a supervisor who introduced me to other professors in other cities. I really enjoyed it. My University is Unimore in Italy. I made several visits to Agip office in Milan. My thesis is “Petroleum in Nigeria”. The supervisor later became a prime minister of Italy. Romano Prodi.

    • Thank you for your feedback Anthony and delighted that you have found these points useful. Impressive supervisor! Your thesis sounds fascinating and a big topic – best wishes for your continued success.

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