The Different Types of PhD Supervisor – How to Choose Your Yoda
If you are thinking about a PhD, you may be imagining your future supervisor as some sort of mysterious entity: a wise Jedi master, who holds the universe at their fingertips, lives on a secluded mountain and probably glows in the dark, too. Please them, and they will bestow great gifts upon you; anger them, and they shall slash your thesis draft with their lightsabre, powered by the souls of former students.
OK, so most PhD supervisors aren’t luminous (unless they’ve been in the lab for a bit too long), they don’t carry lightsabres and their former students have (hopefully) all gone on to successful postdocs or similar.
Still, it’s natural to be a bit nervous about finding a mentor for your project. After all, The relationship between a student and their supervisor is one of the most important - and unique! - aspects of a PhD. Indeed, choosing who you are going to work with could define your entire experience of doing research (no pressure).
But the important thing to remember is that, to at least some extent, this is your choice. There are a lot of different types of PhD supervisors out there, with their own pros and cons. Let’s have a look at some of them…
This supervisor is a textbook classic. They will impress (and probably intimidate) you from the get-go, telling you precisely what they expect from you, what the project plan is, the required skillset and the desirable research goals. No-nonsense, productive and focused, they will be a reliable, yet relentless resource for your research career.
Often, this can be an excellent choice for a supervisor. They will know exactly where you are at and meet with you regularly to discuss your project. Importantly, they won’t tolerate slacking and excuses, which will help stay you on top of your work.
Strict and demanding may be a good idea during your Masters when you are tight on time but you have to consider whether 3-4 years of someone cracking the whip is quite up your alley. The whole point of supervision is to coordinate with a senior researcher who can track your progress, teach and motivate you to succeed. However, balance is important, so keep an eye out for early signs of being pushed to prioritise results over your health (PhD doesn’t stand for ‘Paduan handling Difficulties’).
#2 The genius who does not speak ‘student’
The first time you meet this supervisor, they will probably awe you with the breadth of their knowledge and their arsenal of clever words. This particular species is characterized with contagious passion for their subject, general amicability, high level of skills and pronounced inquisitiveness.
There is no doubt this supervisor knows the topic inside and out. Mention a paper? They can recite it, comment on the content and probably offer corrections. An experiment? They can predict the result, the pitfalls, and the next experiment after that. A rock star in the field, they will be a true Yoda figure; someone you can be proud to call your mentor. Look awesome on your CV they will, too.
The problem? This supervisor may be too preoccupied with cosmic revelations to learn how to communicate with young researchers (or, indeed, people). You might find that the first few meetings (perhaps even all of them) revolve around him talking quick gibberish and – hey presto! – you got it, right? Working with such a supervisor could turn into a game of catching up and trying to decipher their advice, so, if you don’t flourish in that kind of environment, beware! They could also be the type to want to test every hypothesis imaginable and conduct all the experiments, without considering feasibility.
#3 Very busy and important
A goal-oriented busy-body, this person is ambitious and involved, handling departmental affairs, heading different projects and going to conferences. They are critical, rational and organised. They will let you shape your topic your way but tell you straight if you are doing something stupid.
This premium supervisor package comes with plenty of opportunities to develop skills and grow professionally. Having access to their vast network of connection could be crucial for your future career, whether you are interested in going into industry or staying in academia. Supervisor meetings can be very valuable as well, but you may need to learn to ask the right questions and plan ahead to make the most of each one.
If you need more guidance (especially in the early days of your PhD), you might find yourself struggling with a type of supervisor who demands results but is difficult to get a hold of or never has time to come down to the lab to show you things. This may be a good fit, if you like independence and excel at finding alternative sources of help / information. However, be wary of the frustrations associated with someone who only has a handful of minutes to respond to your emails, once a month, using abbreviations.
#4 Friendly, distracted and all over the place
This supervisor is supportive and incredibly positive about all of your ideas. They may seem a little disorganised but, on the plus side, they won’t ask you to build Rome in a day. Their approach is very laid-back, although that can, ironically, result in you being stressed out about having no benchmark to measure your progress against.
This supervisor is a good choice if you know what you’re doing and need just a little direction, someone to check your work’s accuracy and offer insight into who to contact and how.
If they don’t know why they chose to supervise you, aren’t aware of deadlines or have no clue what you’re doing, you are running the risk of being pretty much self-managed. Another warning sign would be if they haven’t published anything in many moons or feel like meetings should be an annual event accompanied with cake – and beginning with them asking what your name is again.
#5 Enthusiastic but inexperienced
This supervisor is likely to be at an early stage of their own career. They may not have many previous or current PhD students, but, be that as it may, they probably remember their own PhD quite well. This means they will be realistic in their expectations of you, discuss your ideas at length and provide input while letting you know it’s your project. They will be easy to talk to and enthusiastic to have you on board.
A good thing about younger researchers is that they are more likely to level with you. They will be able to explain what they know quite well, understand where you are coming from and help you through the PhD crises. They will probably also have more time to sit down with you and go through your project to try and figure out any issues.
This person may not always be very efficient purely due to inexperience (this, of course, is not necessarily the case, but it’s something to keep in mind). For instance, if you come to them with a problem, they may take a while to solve it as they might need to consult someone senior. In addition, they may not be quite as recognised in their field or have as many connections. This isn’t necessarily the end of the world, but it could potentially limit the opportunities they can offer you during or after your degree.
The academic universe holds creatures of all shapes and sizes (only few of them were covered here). In your head, star-ships headed to glory might alternate with aimlessly floating escape capsules containing the remains of rejected academic papers and perhaps failed PhD students. But does your fate really depend solely on your choice of mentor? Probably not.
While it may be true that a large portion of your PhD experience will depend on how you’re supervised, remember that your own efforts and perseverance are the main driver for your academic success. Choose wisely and don’t forget that, at the end of the day, your PhD is what YOU make it.
Editor's note: This blog was first published on 20/09/2018. We've checked and updated it for current readers.
Our PhD newsletter shares courses, funding news, stories and advice