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Advice on choosing and working with a PhD Supervisor

| May 28, 2013

The choice of a PhD supervisor is usually not the decision of the student. In most cases, particularly for PhD studentships or fellowships, students do not select their supervisors. Supervisors are usually allocated by the department or their supervisors may have selected them. However, it is possible to influence the selection yourself, so that you are assigned a particular academic who is the appropriate person to supervise you.[1] As such, you should try to find out as much as you can about your potential supervisor in advance. Doing so will improve the quality of your application to the university. Moreover, this will provide some insurance against unsatisfactory supervision.[2]

In general, your research proposal topic will be the key determining factor in deciding who will be the supervisor assigned to you. PhD students are usually assigned to professors, who are knowledgeable about the field being examined. It would be wise to research faculty members in order to have an idea of who will be most likely assigned to you. In doing so, you must ask the following questions:[3]

  • Do they have an established research record and are they continuing to contribute to the development of their discipline?
  •  Have they published research papers recently?
  • Do they hold research grants of contracts?

On the other hand, if you have applied to a university with your own research proposal, then it is up to you to nominate a supervisor. You should choose a supervisor who has research interests that are similar to yours and with whom you can sustain a good working relationship. You should thoroughly research the subject area that you are interested in and make certain that you know the names of all the leading academics in this field, what they have published, and what direction their work is going to take. Try to talk to a lot of people who have academic experience in your subject area. Based from your investigations, draw up a shortlist of academics that you can approach for advice about supervision.[4]

Advice on choosing and working with a PhD Supervisor

If you have the opportunity to attend PhD interview or university tour, you should take the time to ask about your prospective supervisor/s. Try to speak to other PhD students working in your potential new department and see if you like the atmosphere. Don’t be afraid to ask about the quality of supervision. You should ask about your prospective supervisor’s working style, how often is the supervisor absent, his research interests, etc.[5]

Most universities offer a lot of support to PhD students. Apart from your direct supervisor, the department also provides one or more advisors. These are academics from the same department. Their job is to check your progress and ensure that you are on track to get your PhD. They can also listen to any complaints you may have about your supervisor.[6]

It is also important to consider your relationship with your supervisor. Good communication and rapport are the most important elements of supervision. It is ideal that you and your supervisor have good interpersonal compatibility. At the earliest opportunity, you and your supervisor should discuss the working relationship you wish to establish. Ideally, the selection process is a joint effort where the main supervisor chooses the student and the student chooses the supervisor. Some universities make an effort to facilitate this.[7]


[1] Estelle M. Philips & Derek S. Pugh, How to get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors. (Berkshire: Open University Press, 2010), 1-20

[2] Find a PhD. (2013). PhD study in the arts and humanities. Available: http://www.findaphd.com/student/study/study-3.asp. Last accessed 30th Mar 2013.

[3] Estelle M. Philips & Derek S. Pugh, How to get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors. (Berkshire: Open University Press, 2010), 1-20

[4] Find a PhD. (2013). PhD study in the arts and humanities. Available: http://www.findaphd.com/student/study/study-3.asp. Last accessed 30th Mar 2013.

[5] Find a PhD. (2013). PhDs explained and FAQs. Available: http://www.findaphd.com/student/study/study-1.asp. Last accessed 28 Mar 2013.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Estelle M. Philips & Derek S. Pugh, How to get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors. (Berkshire: Open University Press, 2010), 1-20

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Category: Phd Writing