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Choosing a PhD Supervisor

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

Even before you start a PhD, you’ll have to do some research! Not your doctoral research but the what, where and who of your future degree.

How to choose?

From what I hear from current students, unless there is a personal reason to go to a particular university, the most important factors will be related to the project and/or the supervisor/research group. These include:

  • A subject area/project – this is most commonly cited reason for choosing where to study
  • Who? - An individual expert? Is there someone you really admire and want to work with?
  • Where – ie which university? Which lab?
  • Would you like to study at home or abroad?

Finding a supervisor

For those of you in the sciences, you may choose an advertised project but it will be important to find out a bit more about the person who is going to guide you (at the beginning) and be your research collaborator (towards the end of your PhD).

If you are not applying to do an advertised project (as is often the case in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, you’ll probably start by identifying an area you want to explore and draft a project proposal before you start looking for experts who can act as supervisors.

So all in all, whatever subject area you are in, your supervisor will feature highly in your initial search for a PhD. The supervisor- student relationship is one of the most important determinants in the success of a PhD, so do your research. The bad news: supervisors don’t grow on trees and there isn’t one place for you to look.

How to go about it

You’ll need to know what you want to research and probably have determined a draft research proposal. If you haven’t yet, this is a whole different conversation. Yes, it is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. How can you find out what your research questions will be without having found out who has done related research on the subject? After all, unless the literature around your topic is really old, the likelihood is that these people will be on your prospective supervisors’ shortlist.

However, you can always refine your draft research proposal based on the particular expertise of a prospective supervisor (and perhaps with their help). If you’re asked for a fuller proposal later on in your studies, then provide one.

Alternatively, you can develop a ‘full’ research proposal based on your interests using a full appraisal of the existing body of knowledge and then look for supervisors but you will need to have a lot of confidence in your research proposal. Remember that if the proposal is too long it might not get read so always provide a synopsis

The who?

Prospective supervisors can be:

  • People who you had some interactions with at undergraduate or postgraduate level (lecturer, dissertation advisor, or Masters supervisor).
  • People from your university/department you don’t really know but whose work seems to fit your research interests.
  • Academics in other universities/other countries.

If you get the opportunity to meet a prospective supervisor face-to-face, then do so. Let them know that you’re interested in doing a PhD in his or her area. If you know them from a previous degree, tell them you would like to continue working with them and suggest a longer meeting to discuss common interests, any funded projects which are currently advertised or whether there is an area related to their expertise that you could pursue your PhD in.

You can also look more broadly across departments at your current university. Sometimes, a polite, yet unsolicited, encounter from students who pop round to the office is quite effective. Of course this doesn’t mean you can’t phone/email for an appointment. If you are emailing (which is absolutely fine) to discuss the possibility of doing a PhD, rather than visiting, why not copy in the postgraduate (research) person or international officer in the department or university? They may be able to give you additional information (and in some cases, nudge busy academics!).

If you are casting your net even more widely, email is the most likely way of making contact so plan carefully (see the section below on the golden rules of contacting supervisors). There are also other ways to meet prospective supervisors: Skype chats? online or Twitter chats organised by the university? Could you visit on-campus (one to one or through open days) or attend relevant conferences to meet prospective supervisors? These options can be an expensive option. Some conferences, however, have funding for postgraduate students to attend and present their work, including Masters dissertations.

One of my academic colleagues has a well-respected blog which has organically served to identify future PhD students. Why? Because some of the blog readers (and interesting ‘commenters’) are students and they are obviously engaged with the current issues in that field of research (watch out, not all blogs are written by academics or researchers). So it is worth thinking slightly outside the box these days.

What to look for

Once you’ve done all this, draw up a shortlist of 2-3 supervisors and find out about their research history. What do you mean, I hear you say? Well, finding out about publications is going to be the main thing (and , if you’re in the sciences, scientific databases are going to become your best friend). Important research outputs include books, editorials, reports, press articles, exhibitions, public engagement work (Google is probably going to be a useful tool). It’s also worth looking at any past or present PhD research overseen by your supervisors (university websites are a good place to look for this).

Where to look

  • Scientific databases: will give you a lot of data so to refine your search. For example, you could look for the most cited articles. This will give you an idea of who the leading researchers are.
  • Academic textbooks (who wrote the work of reference?)
  • Academic blogs: choose carefully and find out which ones are written by the experts in the field (back to scientific databases and textbooks, I am afraid)
  • University websites and academic profiles: This is particularly relevant in countries where national research assessment surveys are underway (like the Research Excellence Framework in the UK) and databases of expertise are up-to-date on university websites.
  • Project listings (such as the FindAPhD database).

It is also worth looking at ‘centres of excellence’ which may be in one institution or a group of institutions like Scottish Research Pools in Scotland. This way you’re not simply looking for individuals but the universities where the facilities and expertise are the best in the country where you want to live - or worldwide.

The Golden Rules of making first contact

  • Check their title – Dr., Prof.: Don’t call them professor if they are not.
  • Hook them! By that I mean tell them something interesting (not just obvious flattery!) about you, your research interest and how it matches with their own expertise.
  • Don’t send a mass email to dozens of universities.
  • If you are copying and pasting from one email to another, check you have changed all the relevant information to match who you are writing to. You won’t believe the number of times people wrote to me: that it was their “dream to study at the University of xxxxx” (which happens to be in Denmark) when I worked for a Scottish university. This is an invitation for your email to be dismissed due to a very simple error.
  • Keep it short and to the point. Avoid vagaries and overstatements, such as “it is my dream to do a PhD” or “my project is going to change the world.”
  • Don’t demand an immediate response or hassle the people you contacted too soon.
  • Very importantly, actually read their publications, don’t just say you have.
  • However you make first contact ahead of your first meeting (online or face-to-face) prepare, prepare and prepare some more! The first thing I was asked when I met my supervisor (who I had approached speculatively on recommendation from another professor) is “why are you here?” What would your answer be?

The reality

Not all academics will answer or will agree to meet up. This is not personal, it is just because they’re busy, they have too many students, they’re not sure your research topic is the right one, they’re about to retire, etc. However, if you have potential, sincere research ambitions and an interesting topic/project you want to research, this will help you greatly in your search in a supervisor.

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