How to Choose Your Supervisor and Sail Happily Through Your PhD

Some people say a PhD is like a marriage and indeed, depending on the nature of your project, you are likely to spend much more time with your supervisor than with your partner. For many, a supervisor will be a mentor, a friend, a confidante, an adviser. Someone to rely on when things get tough or when you just can’t see the end of it all and need support and encouragement. So, chances are that the relationship with your supervisor will be an intense one both professionally and personally. A mismatch in this respect can become frustrating for both parties involved, just as a mismatch in a loving partnership can cause serious headaches on both partners. Choose well and you will have a greatly enjoyable time and a generally successful PhD. Choose poorly, and you may end up hating everything you do regardless of how well your project is going.

So, how do you choose the right supervisor for you?

Odd as it may seem, the very first thing you need to asses is what type of student you are and how close a relationship you want. If you are someone who likes or needs constant feedback and guidance, then a supervisor who is able and willing to check frequently on your progress is the one for you. And certainly, at the beginning of your PhD it is desirable to have someone who gives plenty of guidance to make sure that you are moving in the right direction.

If, on the contrary, you prefer to work on your own until you get tangible results before reporting back to your supervisor, you may benefit from a more detached supervision style. But, be careful. While the expectation is that you will gradually move towards a more independent approach to your research during the course of your PhD, a supervisor who is either constantly absent or chronically unavailable is not ideal even for the most independent of students.

Senior or Junior?

In addition to personality issues, there are a number of other considerations to keep in mind. For example, should you go for a senior or a junior member of staff? Clearly, there are advantages and disadvantages in both cases. A senior academic is obviously more experienced and is more likely to have already established their own group. This, in turn, means that you will have plenty of people around who could help you out in case of need. On the other hand, a senior academic is also more likely to be busy with other stuff and will have taken on roles of greater responsibility in the department (head of group, head of department, director of teaching, director of research, just to cite a few) and may have little time to devote to you. A younger supervisor, by contrast, may be somewhat less experienced (though not necessarily less knowledgeable!), but more likely to be generally available. Also, what they lack in experience they may more than compensate for in enthusiasm and genuine interest in your progress.

Beyond the obvious

Whether junior or senior, someone with an established research record, who is actively contributing to their field of expertise, and who is invited to speak at national and international conferences is only too obvious a choice. However, other aspects may be even more important to you. For example, answering some of the following questions may help you decide if you are in doubt about possible supervisors. Do they have time to devote to you? Do they care for you as a person? Are they willing to support your career? If you get publishable results, will they let you have your name as a first author? Do they have key contacts who may become useful in your future? Are they willing to teach you skills that will allow you to sell yourself in the job market if you decide not to stay in research/academia?

It maybe hard to find a single person fitting all of these requirements, but finding out which of these features really matters to you can help you choose accordingly and avoid disappointment later on.

Chemistry matters

So, how do you find out if your potential supervisor has all the qualities you are looking for? The obvious thing is to go and meet them in person. Find out about their general attitude to supervision and try to assess the personal chemistry between the two of you. Also, have a chat with their previous and current students and see if they enjoy being part of the research group they are in.

Ultimately, a good relationship with your supervisor can last a lifetime and may develop into a solid professional and personal collaboration. If you decide to stay in research, a good relationship with your supervisor may well be one that opens opportunities for your future. I know many people who have remained in close contact with their supervisors well after the end of their PhD and their relationships have evolved over time into a constant source of mutual support and advice. So take your time now to choose carefully, and enjoy the benefits of your choice for the rest of your career.

Marialuisa

PS Did you find this post useful? If so, I’d love to hear from you.

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17 thoughts on “How to Choose Your Supervisor and Sail Happily Through Your PhD

  1. Proper supervision perfects students. Busy advisors often overlook this simple truth. A PhD research project is a long-distance run that requires a lot of motivation and support. The former can be instilled by the latter. All advisors: think about your time before you take on a research student.

  2. The article is very interesting, however some of the features you suggest as relevant in a supervisor is not possible to evaluate BEFORE they start supervising you. E.g. how would one know if the supervisor would support your career, or, in future, let you have your name first on a paper…

    • Hi Maja, Thanks for your comment. Yes, I agree, you cannot find out everything about your supervisor before you actually start working with him/her. However, you can talk to previous students he/she have supervised and get a honest opinion. As for publications, you can see whether previous work (which was the project of a PhD student) was published under the student’s name or the supervisor’s. That can give you some hints. Hope this helps. Good luck!

      • Thats is actually a very good advice.Thank you, also for running this blog and replying , it is indeed very helpful :)

  3. This is a very useful topic indeed! I am having a bad time since my supervisor is not into my topic, there is not chemistry and he is also junior. I am scared of him and I really would like to change. On the other hand the second one is into my topic but he is also very busy since she is the head of the department! He’s very useful though and I was thinking to change the role. Putting the second as the first and the first as the second. However why should I not have two of them who are into my topic?

    • Dear Camelia, here a couple of observations for you:

      1) Changing the role of your first and second supervisors should certainly be possible. However, if this is not going to change the day-to-day interaction you have with either or both, why bother? You said you current second supervisor is also the head of department and I guess it is unlikely that he/she will be able to have any more time to devote to you even if he/she was your first supervisor. So, chances are you’d still have to interact more with your current first supervisor even if he was to become your second supervisor. Having said that, you are certainly entitled to have both supervisors from your own research topic, provided there is enough people around with that expertise. Also, ideally, your first supervisor should be familiar with your research topic.

      2) Your statements “I am scared of him” and “there is no chemistry” seem pretty strong to me. Why do you feel scared by him? Is this something likely to change in the future? My suspicion is that it may not. In this case, a change of supervisor would be desirable (the earlier the better).

      I would suggest that you speak in confidence with some other member of staff at your own institution and ask for advice. Hopefully, they will take your best interest at heart and help you take the best course of action.

      I hope this is useful. Let me know how it goes.

      All the best,
      M

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  5. its a nice post for all those who are looking for guides.. In particular , i liked the part where you have mentioned about time constraints and jr and sr types . its a very realistic article . thank you

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  7. Very true, choosing a guide really matters a lot. I was lucky to have a very good person as my mentor through my master’s degree. It’s a time to opt for a new person in a new University for PhD.
    Loved your write ups.

    • Hi there! Glad to hear you have had a good mentoring relationship. I hope this post will have given you some thoughts now on how to choose you next supervisor. Let us know how things progress. Good luck!

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