Choosing the right PhD Supervisor

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If you’re pursuing a research-based PhD, finding the right supervisor to mentor you and guide you through the various elements of your research is vital. The right fit can help you deliver to your best, so take your time and ask the right questions.

What is their role?

A good research supervisor’s role is to foster your academic development and growth through structured support. He or she is not an ever-present shoulder to cry on, nor are they your teacher. They are there to help you develop the confidence and skills that the institution believes you possess by virtue of you doing a doctorate (PhD) programme. They already know you have drive and self-determination, but it’s up to you to manage and harness. It’s on you to realise your full potential. The scale of work involved to successfully earn a doctorate should not be underestimated, but nor should it frighten you. You have the support of your institution and fellow students and the third piece of the jigsaw should be that of the right supervisor.

Be challenged

You and your supervisor don’t need to be best friends, but you do need to be personalities that can comfortably work together. Your supervisor should realise the ambition of your goals and give you the latitude and support to achieve them, but it is also their job to safeguard the reputation of the institution. It’s on them to put you back on course should they feel you are straying.

A productive balance

For you to be successful, you will need feedback and meetings in a structured fashion, where they can deliver the best results, not meetings for the sake of meetings. A supervisor will be most effective when they are assisting and guiding you through a well-established plan, based on their own wealth of experience. They are there to supervise you, you are not there to assist them – so be wary of any supervisor that tries to micro-manage you or take an excessive interest in the purpose and direction of your work.

Do they even exist?

On the flipside, you want to find someone who you know is reliable. You want your emails to be replied to and meetings to go ahead as scheduled. If you’re applying for a PhD and your potential mentor is getting back to you at a glacial pace, if at all, take that as a warning. First, assess if they have something big on their plate. They could be prepping for a conference, or delivering on a project. However, if you suspect they are in their office/lab binging on Netflix instead of hitting ‘reply’, it’s time to look elsewhere.

A two-way street

The selection of a supervisor should be like a two-way interview process-where you do your homework on their work and what their areas of specialism. How can they assist you with your own research and areas of focus? How could you help them? Read any published work they have available and do your own investigation on their methodologies. This research can also help you pitch yourself as a candidate if it’s a fit.

Bring your ‘A’ game

Remember, you are highly unlikely to be the only student who the supervisor is mentoring. Be mindful of their time and resources and make sure you’re certain they’re accepting new students before you decide on he/she as your chosen supervisor. If so, will they be able to afford you the time and support you need? Or indeed, give you the space and latitude you need? If possible, talk to students who have worked with your chosen supervisor before and can give you some insights into their particular strengths and work practices, and also any potential pitfalls.

Trust your gut

The supervisor/student relationship is unique in every case and successful relationships are almost always organic in nature. There is no definitive right or wrong in this process, it should be an evolutionary one, where you use the experience of your supervisor to the best of your ability and they gain further skills, experience and insights from your work. Be prepared to work hard and communicate honestly, clearly and regularly in order to best benefit from the relationship.


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