The 4 truths of choosing a PhD supervisor.

July 21, 2015 | Posted by ECA UK | No Comments »

A PhD is a lot of hard work. In fact, it’s a lot of hard work even applying for a PhD, what with all the proposal writing and application to go through. Even after doing all that, there is no promise that you’ll even get accepted to the PhD programme, as you will first need to find an academic to supervise your studies. This can be the toughest part, as it will involve speaking with academics in the department you’re applying to, sending out your proposal for feedback, and – if disaster strikes – there is even the possibility that you won’t be able to find anyone willing to be your supervisor.

That would indeed be a disaster. And let’s face it, academics don’t always make it easy for prospective students: if you contact the wrong guy, he probably won’t take the time to point you in the right direction. So it’s important to be on the money from the start, and not waste anyone’s time. To make things easier, and help you find the right target, we’ve got 4 truths that you can follow, and that will lead you down the path to postgraduate enlightenment.

1. Find someone who knows about your research area.

Let’s start with the obvious one: your supervisor will need to be someone with an interest in the topic you’re going to research, and will have already supervised other PhD students in a similar field, written papers on a similar topic, and basically be ready to share his expertise and impart his wisdom. If you try to choose a supervisor who doesn’t have an interest in your particular field, then be prepared for them to say no. Not all economists have research interest in every aspect of economics, for example, though some academics have quite niche interests which could benefit your own research. Universities have staff lists online detailing each academic and their interests, so that is the best place to start looking. These staff lists also have contact details, so you can reach out and begin talking to your chosen supervisor that way.

2.Find someone who will be available when you need them to be.

It will be tempting to find a supervisor who is a star professor, a stud academic who will be able to take your research to the next level, and sprinkle magic dust on your career. This may well be the case, and good luck if you can find one. But being supervised by a famous academic – or any academic, in reality – could in fact have pitfalls, the most pressing one being, Will they be able to commit as much time as you need? If they’re a well-known academic, they might be off at conferences, going to book launches, or even jet off overseas on a regular basis. That won’t be very helpful to you – especially when you consider that you should ideally be meeting your supervisor at least once a week!

Every meeting you have with your supervisor is valuable, and when you have the opportunity to speak with them you should take it. They are your guides, as much as anything, so make sure that the supervisor you choose is well-regarded, but is also going to be available when you need them. It would be great to have that famous academic supervising you, and have their name next to yours on your thesis. You will be able to say that he or she supervised you, but what did they actually do? If they’re genuinely famous, not much, probably. Don’t forget: it’s your time, not theirs.

3. Find someone with experience.

When you’re trying to choose your supervisor, you need to consider their track record, and their past successes. An academic supervisor guides students through the process of a research degree that can last 3 or 4 years: some students don’t perform as well as they hoped, some finished late, and some don’t finish at all. So you’ll need to ask, how did your supervisor’s previous students get on? Did they finish in time? Were their doctorates successful? A great supervisor will have a great track record of seeing students complete their degree both on time and successfully.

You’ll need to make sure that your supervisor is experienced, and knows what they’re doing. If they’ve only recently started taking on their own PhD students, they might be doing so with supervision from other academics, and so they will be feeling their own through the supervision process. If they are the only academic with an interest in your research area, then you might not have any other option, but getting someone experienced is the best route. An experienced supervisor will already know what effective supervision is, and will be able to anticipate issues before they even arise.

4. Find someone who you can get on with.

A doctorate is the pinnacle of studying at university. It is another 3 or 4 years of ups and downs, with struggles and new discoveries on the way. You will be relying on your supervisor to help you navigate your way to completion, and you will spend time with them each week, discussing ideas, talking about new research, arguing, laughing, and going through the whole range of emotions together. One of the most important questions you’ll have to ask yourself is: Can I get on with them? Are they a decent person? This could be difficult to judge, and you will need to speak with your potential supervisor in order to find out. Many universities encourage students to send in an application, and let the administrators match them with a suitable member of staff. This could save you time, but it’s an inefficient process in reality, as the administrators sometimes don’t know what they should be looking for in an academic profile. It would be far better if you looked for a supervisor yourself, as you will be able to gauge their willingness to supervise you, their interest in your proposal, and then inform the admissions team of their commitment.

Of course, finding a supervisor by yourself isn’t easy, and ECA UK can help you with the process. It will be far more rewarding than being supervised by someone who was chosen for you by admissions, just because they had a slightly smaller workload. Being supervised is a personal process, so finding a supervisor should be a personal process too. Follow ECA UK’s 4 truths, and make it that way!

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Category: Applications, Postgraduate