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Choosing a PhD Supervisor

Your PhD supervisor will play a vital role in your PhD, providing you with the mentorship, feedback and support you need to succeed. That’s why it’s so important to spend time finding a PhD supervisor who will be a great fit for you and your project.

This page covers how to go about finding and choosing a supervisor. We’ve also explained the qualities that make for a good PhD supervisor.

How to find a PhD supervisor

Your path towards finding a PhD supervisor largely depends on whether you’re applying for an advertised project or putting forward your own research proposal.

If you’re applying for an advertised project, the process of finding a supervisor is fairly simple – usually they’ll be the academic who has devised the project in question, and the person you’ll be making your application to.

It’s still important in this case to do your homework, making sure you’re clued up on their research and able to ask sensible, specific questions about the project in your initial contact with the prospective PhD supervisor. Advertised projects – often with funding already attached – are much more common in STEM subjects, although you may still come across them in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences too.

If you’re proposing your own PhD project, you’ll need to be prepared to do some investigation to find an academic and university department that align with your interests and aims. The rest of this section will give you several pointers how you can do this.

Finding an expert in your field

First of all, you’ll want to have at least a rough idea of what you want your PhD topic to be so that you can begin to narrow down prospective supervisors by research interests, focusing on those that have expertise in your area.

This doesn’t necessarily have to mean finishing the final draft of your research proposal (that comes a little later), but you’ll need to have a decent plan of what you want to achieve with your research so that you know you’re getting in touch with the right people (and not wasting your time – or theirs!).

There are several ways to do this:

  • Browsing the academic staff section of a university department website – This is where lecturers and professors will list their research interests, publications and the areas in which they’re keen to supervise potential PhD students. Some websites allow you to filter and search by interest, but in other cases you’ll need to check these profiles individually – time-consuming but worth it.
  • Speaking to the academics at your current (or previous) university – These people will likely know exactly who the experts in your field are. They’ll probably even be experts themselves! If you already have a friendly relationship with a personal tutor or Masters dissertation supervisor, it’ll be good to have an informal chat about who they think could be a good fit for your work.
  • Checking who has been prolific in your research area – There are probably a few names that have come up repeatedly in your previous work at postgraduate level. It’s worth scouring bibliographies and chapters to learn more about the academics behind them, finding out about their current work and whether they’re accepting supervisees.
  • Scientific databases – If you’re a STEM student, scientific databases will give you lots of data with which to refine your search, allowing you to look for the most cited articles and thus find out who the leading researchers are.

Once you’ve done your research and have a good idea of the academic landscape around your proposed PhD topic, you should make a shortlist of around three potential supervisors to contact. Now is the time to make sure you’re really clued up on their background, work and current projects, so that you can make an excellent first impression when you get in touch with them.

Contacting a PhD supervisor

Our guide to contacting a PhD supervisor has everything you need to know about making first contact, with tips on preparation, email etiquette and questions to ask.

How to choose a PhD supervisor

If you’re in a lucky enough position that you have two or more prospective supervisors that are happy to oversee your PhD project, there are several factors that you might consider when making your final decision:

  • What career stage your potential supervisor is at – An academic at the beginning of their career might have fewer professional commitments and therefore more time to supervise you. A senior lecturer or professor, meanwhile, may have an extremely busy professional life – but this could be counterbalanced by their expertise and experience.
  • Other supervisees – Find out what kind of work the supervisor has previously been (or is currently) involved in. You can normally see a list of current research students on a department website, for example. Are they engaged in similar work to you? See if you can find out what path previous supervisees took after finishing their PhD, working out if they stayed in the department or took up postdoc positions.
  • University facilities – If your choices of supervisor are at different universities, weigh up the benefits that might come with the specialist facilities and resources available at each institution.
  • University department – Depending on your preferences, you may want to work within a small, specialised department or a larger team that allows more scope for cross-disciplinary collaboration.

If you’re able to meet your potential supervisor – either in-person or via video call – that can also be a great way of gauging their personality and your chemistry. You’re going to be working with them for a minimum of three years, so you want to make sure you’re going to get on with them!

What is a good PhD supervisor?

Now that you know how to find and choose a supervisor for your project, you might be wondering about the qualities of a good PhD supervisor. You’ll be spending an awful lot of time with them during your PhD, so it pays to understand what to look out for in terms of personality traits, expertise and experience.

#1 Substantial research expertise

The ideal PhD supervisor will be an expert in their academic field, with a wealth of publications, articles, chapters and books. They’ll also have a background in organising and presenting at conference events.

It’s also important that their expertise is up-to-date – you should look for evidence that they’re currently active in your research area, with recent publications and conference attendance. The quality of these publications is also important – prominent, peer-reviewed journals are ideal. If your prospective supervisor has lots of citations, that’s also a great sign.

#2 Clear about their career plans

After you’ve made initial contact with a supervisor, it’s good to get an idea of where they see their own future. If they’re planning to retire, go on sabbatical or change institution, that could cause problems for your PhD later down the line. It goes without saying that you want a supervisor who is going to stick around for the duration of your PhD.

#3 Previous experience as a PhD supervisor

Ideally, a supervisor should have a long track record of supervising PhD students, with plenty of experience helping them through the ups and downs that come with research. It’s well worth investigating how previous supervisees have done under the tutelage of your prospective supervisor – university websites, ResearchGate and LinkedIn are the best places to do this.

If you’re able to visit the department in person, speak to current PhD students to get an idea of how they’re getting on.

#4 Personality

It can be difficult to judge someone’s personality on the basis of emails, a video call or a chat over coffee, but try to decide if your potential supervisor is a good match for you on a personal level.

Do they seem enthusiastic about your work and inspiring about their own interests? Will they make a good mentor when it comes down to the hard work of completing your PhD? Are they more of a hands-on or hands-off supervisor?

#5 Organisational skills

Excellent organisational skills – both on your part and your supervisor’s part – are key to succeeding at a PhD. You’ll want a supervisor that is clear with their expectations, giving you deadlines where necessary but also having some flexibility that takes your personal situation into account.

You also want a supervisor who is easy to get hold of for feedback and advice, with regular office hours. Many academics are extremely busy, but you should expect your supervisor to find time for you where necessary.

PhD supervisor guide

If you want to find out more about what it's like to work with a PhD supervisor, we've written a guide on what to expect from your PhD supervisor.

Last updated - 03/03/2021

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