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Choosing the Right PhD Supervisor

By: Kate Simpson BA, MA - Updated: 9 Nov 2011 | comments*Discuss

When it comes to PhD study, finding the right supervisor is everything, especially if you're applying for funding. Awarding panels will be keen to see that you've picked the right institution and an ideal supervisor. The success of your research also depends on your initial choice. The right PhD supervisor will share your research interests, have expertise in your chosen field of study and be a great motivator. They’ll also be on hand to introduce you to and familiarise you with the customs and conventions of doctoral study, from academic networking to time management. It’s important to remember that, as a PhD student, your supervisor will be your point of contact with your university institution, so finding someone who is open, helpful, organised and on your side is a must. To ensure you pick the right supervisor, take the time to research potential supervisors carefully and thoroughly, as well as meeting them and discussing your ideas.

Identify Key Names in Your Chosen Field of Study

Once you’ve identified the topic you’d like to work on, familiarise yourself with current scholarship. Reading around your subject is a must. Try to get a sense of the contemporary critical debate in your chosen field. Keeping an eye on in-text citations, footnotes and bibliographies is a great way to see which key academics are working in your field. Which thinkers get regular mentions and are frequently quoted? Make a list of important names and jot down a few details about each of them. Have they written any crucial texts that have shaped recent discussion? Which university are they based at? What key theories or work are they known for? What side of the debate do they fall on?

Select a Shortlist

Next, set about narrowing down your list. Practicalities will play a huge role here. Location and tuition fees will probably be deciding factors. Pick three to four academics that hold positions at universities you could feasibly apply to. Of course, if money is not an issue and you are able to move anywhere in the world to undertake your PhD, you’ll be spoilt for choice! It’s also worth talking to your past lecturers and tutors. Drop them an email and ask if they can suggest any potential supervisors. They may well know a fair few of the people on your list personally and may therefore be able to give you an idea of whether you’re likely to develop a friendly, productive working relationship with the supervisors you have in mind.

Get in Touch

Get in touch with the potential supervisors on your shortlist as soon as possible, well before the application deadline. Send them a concise, polite email or letter introducing yourself and your research interests. Ask them if they’d be interested in supervising your project. If you have any noteworthy academic achievements like past funding, scholarships or high grades, make sure you mention this in your introductory email. You may well discover that a number of those on your shortlist are not currently accepting new PhD projects or don’t feel well suited to guide your particular project. In which case, you can strike these names off your list.

Collaborate with Your Potential Supervisors

Remember that the potential supervisors you have identified are experts – that’s why you’ve got in touch with them! With this in mind, don’t be afraid to ask for their advice and guidance, if they have expressed an interest in your project. With their input, you can shape your ideas and craft an impressive research proposal. Whilst your thesis will be an independent project that you will own and mastermind, it’s important to be flexible. Your supervisor’s specific interests and expertise will shape your research, to some degree. Whilst it’s important to stay true to your own ideas, be open to taking your work in new directions and making the most of their specialist knowledge, particularly at the pre-application stage. Your discussions with each individual potential supervisor will shape your eventual research proposals. Indeed, you should write a separate research proposal for each institution you apply to, stating why the supervisor in question is a considered, sensible choice and how you will benefit from their guidance and input. Funding usually goes to those who have chosen a supervisor who makes a perfect fit.

If you’re keen to apply to a number of institutions, go ahead and apply to work with each of the supervisors on your shortlist. You can make your final decision when you hear the results of all your applications and have got a sense of each potential supervisor’s working style and personality.

Consider Choosing a Second Supervisor

If there are two academics at a given institution that you think would make great supervisors, it’s possible to work with both. One will be your principal supervisor and the other will be your second supervisor. That way, you can benefit from the different qualities of both. If you have a second supervisor in mind, make sure you mention their name when applying. It’s also possible to change your second supervisor in the course of your studies, if your research evolves or develops in a way you did not foresee during the application process.

The relationship between student and supervisor is one that will last at least three years, so make sure you get off to a flying start. Put in a little time, effort and creativity early on and you will thank yourself for it in the long run. Remember to stay polite, positive and open minded when communicating with potential supervisors. They can help set you on the road to academic success.

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