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Choosing a PhD supervisor in the sciences

Whether you end up applying to a specific research project with an allocated supervisor, or to a funded research group within which you have more freedom to develop a research project, read on to find out what makes a good supervisor and how to find one.

So you know you want to do a PhD and you have some idea of what you’d like to research. How do you go about finding the right supervisor? In a nutshell, firstly you need to identify potential supervisors: in other words, university academics working in your area of interest. Secondly, you need to make contact and capture their interest in you, with a view to asking some important questions that will give you an insight into whether they could be the right supervisor for you and your project.

Identify potential supervisors

It’s essential to find out which academics are doing research that encompasses your area of interest. You probably already know some important names, but don’t leave it at that. Ideally you want to feel inspired by scholars whose work really excites you – and who you’d love to work with – so it’s important to cast your net wide. Here are some tips to get going:

  • Start with your own department. Are there any lecturers you know or who you could approach with whom you could discuss your ideas, and who might be able to recommend potential supervisors? Your current institution may well be the place to study, but it’s important to investigate other options in the UK or further afield.
  • Make use of science databases to find relevant articles and publications in your area of interest.
  • Once you have a list of academic researchers working in your who might be potential supervisors, check out their profiles on their department website to get a good all-round idea of their interests including their research outputs – articles, editorials, books, blogs etc. Their profile might also include a list of current and former doctoral students.

Making a good first impression

A well-written speculative email is the standard way to make an initial contact. Make sure you use their correct title and that your email is as carefully presented as a written letter. It’s important to:

  • show that you are familiar with and genuinely interested in their work
  • avoid sending a generic email – it will stand out a mile and is unlikely to impress
  • suggest possible sources of funding, especially if you are an overseas student
  • make sure you come across as motivated and organized: introduce yourself, where you have been studying, explain what you have done so far, and outline the area that interests you (you will not generally be expected to present a fully-fledged research proposal).

If you have a succinct CV outlining your academic history and achievements so far, include it. Finish by asking if it would be possible to visit them at their department, or to speak on the phone or via Skype.

Meeting a potential supervisor: do your research beforehand

Before you meet someone who might supervise your PhD, you need to do some thorough preparation. Be ready to answer questions they are likely to ask you, and to ask your own questions.

A potential supervisor will want to find out if you have the academic potential, motivation and staying power to complete a PhD within the given time constraints. Being clear on why you want to do a PhD and where you want it to take you will be a key factor in sticking with a long and at times arduous research project. Make sure you can answer a question along the lines of ‘Why are you here?’ Do make sure you have read any work that you have alluded to in your earlier email.

For your part, you need to think about what will help you decide whether you’d like to have a working relationship with this person for three or four years. Ideally you need someone who is available, involved and supportive – while doing the PhD and beyond. To some extent you’ll need to go on your gut instinct as to whether you feel you would have a good working and personal relationship with this person – do they seem approachable and friendly? Have some questions prepared to find out the following information:

  • Have they got a long and strong track record of supervising students? If they are relatively new to supervision, what back-up is there – eg access to a co-supervisor with greater experience?
  • How often would you get to meet?
  • What would their expectations of you be?
  • What arrangements are in place for a second supervisor and how does that work in practice? What other support is available – eg postdocs in the lab?
  • Will the supervisor be there for the whole three years or might they be on sabbatical? If they went on sabbatical, would you be able to accompany them?
  • How far do they see their responsibilities towards you extending – eg in terms of your future career?
  • Would it be possible to talk to former or current PhD students, or postdocs in their research group?

It’s definitely a good idea to chat with doctoral researchers working with the supervisor you are considering applying to – and it’s likely you’ll be given the opportunity to do this if you visit the department or research group where the supervisor is based. If you can’t visit in person, see if there’s a list of current students on the academic-in-question’s profile – it shouldn’t be too hard to track down their email address and send a few diplomatically phrased questions.

Applying to do a PhD

Once you’ve reached a conclusion about where and with whom you’d like to study, it’s time to make a formal application. Look on the relevant website for details of how to apply: read – and follow – any advice and guidelines for submitting successful applications meticulously.

Thanks to Dr Ruth Williams, Emeritus Reader in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, Cambridge University, and Dr Ace North, postdoctoral student in the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford for their help with this article.

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