As a PhD prospect or a student just accepted to a PhD programme, you have an essential first task: choosing the right supervisor. Make a good decision at this juncture, and your research will be better, your path more trouble-free. You will feel supported as a person and scholar. Make the wrong choice, and you may lose your passion for research and even fail to complete your PhD.
Ask the right questions
Here’s an insider secret: the process of supervisor selection at many universities is more haphazard than you might think. Rather than giving deep consideration to fit, supervisors may be assigned on the basis of which academics have room in their timetable. However, there are very few situations in which it is wise to let the university choose your supervisor for you.
As a PhD student, you are in a more equal position with staff than you were when you did your Masters. You will be expected to do many things that staff do. For example, you may be teaching undergraduates, mentoring other postgrads, and representing the university at research conferences. You should expect to be proactive about aligning yourself advantageously: Cultivate potential supervisors before you apply or begin, and make sure they are prepared to fight to have you on their team.
As part of this process, always ask:
1) How many PhDs have you supervised through to completion?
Their answer will give you an idea about their level of experience, and also their level of success.
2) What characteristics do you think students who successfully complete PhDs have?
The answer may actually tell you a great deal about what effort they put into supervising students.
3) What do you expect from the students you supervise?
Again, the answer will let you know what they are like to work with: hands-on or hands-off? Supportive or demanding? Most students need both support and challenge.
4) What do you think of my research topic and planned methodology?
This is where you’ll get a good idea of whether your ideas about research match up.
Choose someone whose work you respect
The more specialised your area of research, the more “specialised” your supervisor should be. The last thing you need is someone who sits back in their office chair and waits for you to tell them all about the latest findings or publications, because they themselves stopped looking years ago.
Ask other postgrads who have had this supervisor what they are like to work with. Ask for the unvarnished truth. Find who to ask by looking at lists of postgrads working in the research group and seeing whether they have coauthored with any members of staff—if so, that’s usually their supervisor. Some universities do now list PhD students by name alongside the names of their supervisors. You can also trawl through recently submitted PhDs (supervisors are normally credited).
Ask what you can expect from this supervisor, and compare this to what the university says you should receive. In many humanities subjects in the UK supervisors are typically only funded for one hour per month per PhD student, if that, whereas elsewhere weekly meetings are common. In some STEM subjects, however, you may work together daily. Many supervisors give far more time to students than they are required to, some set clear but fair limits based on time allocation, and a few fall short.
You’ll be spending a lot of time together, and it will quickly become unbearable if your personalities are absolutely incompatible. In addition, your reputation in the field as a newly minted PhD in search of work will for many years to come be attached to that of your past supervisor. Is it an association you would be proud to proclaim? If not, look elsewhere.
In some cases, no single individual has all the criteria that you need, especially if your work is interdisciplinary. Working across disciplinary boundaries can get quite tricky at some universities due to competitive behaviour between departments, research groups and individuals, so be careful.
Reliability is important. Many UK universities assign two supervisors (primary and secondary, or with equal billing), ostensibly to ensure continuity in the face of frequent staff changes. Make sure, however, that your primary supervisor has no intention of going elsewhere anytime soon. Disrupted supervision is a contributing factor in many cases of uncompleted PhD work.