Tips for graduate students looking for a PhD supervisor

SOURCE: Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP
Simon Business School boasts a diverse student profile and fosters diversity of thought.

By U2B Staff 

Read all stories

PhD supervisors play a huge role in shaping your PhD experience. They’re there to guide and advise you throughout your research degree.

As such, choosing the right PhD supervisor is not something that should be taken lightly. To make your PhD journey a rewarding one, here are some advice worth keeping in mind:

Don’t limit your supervisor search to one university

In a LinkedIn post from 2014 on how students can get an academic position, Ibrahim Baggili, Director, Connecticut Institute of Technology (CIT) – Connecticut Tech at University of New Haven, opined that students should pick an institution that has the advisor that best fits their needs, rather than focus on getting into a specific institution.

“Do not choose an advisor because he/she is nice or easy going. That will not help you score an academic position when you graduate. Choose an advisor that is well connected, at the forefront of their domain and one that will get you engaged in their research agenda.”


Know the professor’s research areas

Shooting generic emails to numerous professors will unlikely to impress a potential supervisor.

On Quora, Barbara Robson, a research scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and an Adjunct Associate Professor at James Cook University, said some of the things that would make a student stand out include if they take the time to carve their email to her specifically.

This entails doing the necessary homework to understand the professors’ research areas.

“They should be able to tell me why they are interested in working with me in particular. I am not looking for flattery, so answers like ‘you are an eminent researcher’ will not go far. I am looking for evidence that they have thought this through,” she said.

Acceptable answers include those that showcase students’ genuine reason to work with her, with examples including, “I want to apply my mathematics skills in a way that will help the environment” she said.


Will you be a good fit with your PhD supervisor?

A PhD is a long journey that requires plenty of stamina to successfully finish. As such, you’ll want to ensure that you have a good working relationship with a potential supervisor whom you’ll be working long-term with. 

One way of getting more insights about a supervisor’s working style is to get in touch with their past students for details about working with them to help you decide who you work best with.

Just remember that it’s a two-way street – a PhD supervisor would also want to enjoy working with a PhD student. 

Robson said, “If they start a PhD with me we will be embarking on a multi-year collaboration, so I want it to be enjoyable for both of us. I get on with most people, but arrogance and defensiveness are both strong turn-offs, while an overly shy student may be harder work than a student with a little confidence.”


Contacting a supervisor 

Once you’ve found a potential supervisor, contact them to ask about their availability to supervise you, keeping in mind that you should also highlight your academic background, research interests as well as why their expertise makes them ideal to supervise you with your research proposal.

With the right chemistry and ‘ingredients’ in place, the right PhD supervisor will help you navigate your academic journey successfully.