How to select a winning PhD supervisor

Don't start your PhD or master's thesis with the wrong supervisor! Read this article to get the best tips on choosing the right supervisor for you.
Nerizza Aborde
Nerizza Aborde
Team Postgrad Australia
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The PhD supervisor plays an integral role in your experience as a research degree student. There are many variables involved in whether you have a positive and successful research outcome, one of which is your relationship with your supervisor, because the supervisor will guide and support you throughout your degree.  Therefore, finding the right supervisor in your chosen field of study is vital for a successful outcome.

Steps in choosing a potential supervisor

When you’ve made the choice to complete a PhD, you need to define the area of interest and figure out what you want to explore. This is your first step. A suitable supervisor is someone whose field of research and areas of interest are similar to yours.

  • To search for the academics with the same interests like you, look into the university websites and academic profiles. However, if you are applying for a scholarship, you must consider the university’s funding status and benefits.
  • There are search engines or research databases for academics that can assist you with your work, such as Research Data Australia or Microsoft Academic. If you find someone’s published articles that motivate you, this means they may be a suitable match to your interests.
  • Ask for recommendations from friends, colleagues, and from current or previous professors since they may provide you ideas on who is close to your area of research interest and who you can work with both personally and professionally.

Prefer scholars who have extensive knowledge in their chosen field. Having an academic with experience and good credentials will give you an opportunity to be recognized and attain your goals. In addition, if you want to pursue a job in academia after completing your PhD, your supervisor would be a great reference to your job applications.

Initiate contact

Attending lectures, conferences or orientations where your prospective supervisor is present or attends will give you an opportunity to talk to them. Alternatively, you may ask someone you know—an academic professor or colleagues—to help introduce you to your potential supervisor.

Once you have met your prospective supervisor, you may proceed sending a formal letter and research proposal. Make sure to create your email in a professional manner, otherwise it will likely be ignored. Keep in mind that this approach will determine whether or not your potential supervisor accepts you as their PhD student.

Your letter must contain:

  • a brief description of your research proposal
  • the reasons why you want to work with them and how their interests align with your own
  • proof of your academic achievements
  • your availability to start
  • any funding opportunities you applied for
  • a polite invitation for a meeting, which shows you respect their time

It’s also best to indicate in your letter that you have already done a background study of your research proposal — which is also a requirement in PhD study.

If the supervisor doesn’t respond in a week, send a follow up email to gently remind them of your letter. Academics are generally busy people and they may forgot to respond. However, if they don’t respond after a few weeks, it’s best to give up and look for a new one.

Meeting a potential supervisor — what to look for

Meeting your potential supervisor face-to-face can be a bit intimidating, so make sure you have prepared yourself. For instance, having yourself informed about their previous and current work will leave the supervisor with an impression that you are interested in their area of research. However, keep in mind that you’re assessing them too so make sure to check for the following:

  • Social rapport — meeting face-to-face is a good opportunity to get to know the personality of your potential supervisor. This will give you an idea of whether you are fit to work together.
  • Expertise and experience — ask them how they assist PhD students, how many PhD students they have supervised in the past, how many they are currently supervising and how they manage to support each student individually.
  • Availability and commitment — since most academics are busy, discuss how much time they can dedicate to your supervision time to set both your expectations.
  • Sympathy and consideration — let the supervisor know about any personal circumstances you have that might affect your working conditions with them (for instance, if you have a family or need to work remotely). This will reveal if the supervisor can be accommodating to your needs and if they are willing to discuss any arrangement that could work for both of you.
  • Professionalism and decency — the last thing you want to experience with a supervisor is any act of indecency. Being professional at all times is an essential trait you need to look for when choosing a supervisor as any unpleasant behavior may affect or ruin your PhD study.

Deciding on your final choice

Finding two or three potential PhD supervisors that are willing to supervise and assist you in your research may seem tough luck. So how do you choose one?

  • Try to talk to the supervisor’s current or previous students to get to know the supervisor’s personality, supervision methods, as well as to get an insight into the students’  experience in working with the specific supervisor.
  • Search for previous theses and published articles under their supervision.
  • Take into account the university’s reputation. The topmost and popular universities will provide good credentials wherever you go.
  • Check the university’s guidelines or policy for PhD supervision. These will provide you with pertinent information in regards to the support provided to PhD students.