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How to Choose Your PhD Supervisor

Your PhD supervisor will be one of the most influential people in your academic life. Throughout the course of your doctorate, your supervisor will play the role of mentor, confidant, cheerleader, and advisor. They will be crucial to your PhD’s success so it’s important to make a prudent choice.

Social sciences, arts, and humanities PhD programs often require applicants to indicate a potential supervisor when applying. It is recommended that you contact this person before submitting your application. However, in STEM fields it is more common to apply for a predetermined PhD research project with a supervisor attached. In this case, applicants can still benefit from either researching or contacting the supervisor assigned to the research project.

The Basics

Before you can start evaluating potential supervisors you must have a clear idea of what you want to research. Since you’re planning on doing a PhD it’s likely you have already identified some of your research interests. Your supervisor should be someone who has expertise in one of these areas. If you want to pursue a PhD in social sciences, arts, or the humanities it’s a good idea to develop a project proposal or at least some specific research questions in mind before starting to contact potential supervisors.

Come Up With a List

Now it’s time to do some research and come up with a list of potential supervisors. Are there certain names that come up again and again when you research this topic? If you’re having a hard time coming up with some scholars on your own, it can be incredibly helpful to talk to a professor in your department about potential supervisors. They know the field better and will be able to suggest some researchers who work on your research topic.

Once you make the initial list, it’s time to whittle it down. Read up on each person on your list. Are they still an active researcher? Do they still work on your research topic? Are they currently supervising students? What are the admissions criteria for the institution they work at? The answers to these questions will probably eliminate a few potential supervisors from your list leaving you ready for the next step.

Make Contact

The easiest way to approach the people on your shortlist of potential supervisors is by sending them a quick email. To make a good impression, this email should be well-written, concise, and personalized to the recipient. Your email should:

  • Clearly state your interest in doing a PhD with them
  • Describe your academic background and research interests
  • Explain why they are the perfect person to supervise you (by making reference to their work)
  • Mention any funding you are applying for
  • Ask if you can arrange a time to meet or talk on the phone about the project
  • Include your CV (here’s a handy template) and research proposal
  • If you don’t hear back from them in two weeks, send a follow-up email. If you don’t hear back in another two weeks, start to look elsewhere. There may be many reasons the professor doesn’t answer you; don’t take it personally.

Meeting Face to Face

When a professor responds that they are interested in you and your project, they will probably want to meet you (either in person or virtually on Skype). This meeting will allow your potential supervisor to learn more about you and determine if your personalities are a good fit. The will have several questions for you and, likewise, you should prepare some questions for them so that you can decide if you really want to do a PhD with them. Relevant questions would be:

  • What are the characteristics of a successful PhD student?
  • What do you expect of the students you supervise?
  • How do you mentor students?
  • What are your past students doing now?
  • How many students are you currently supervising?
  • How much time would you have for me?
  • What do you think of my research proposal?
  • Do you have any sabbaticals planned during the time I would be doing my PhD?

The answers to these questions will tell you a lot about their supervision style. Choosing a supervisor is a personal choice and each applicant will value different qualities over others. Generally, your supervisor should be someone you get along with who is approachable, has a good placement and publication record, and is enthusiastic about your project.

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