It should come to no surprise: choosing a PhD supervisor is a HUGE deal. Throughout the course of your doctorate, they will play many roles: a mentor, confidant, cheerleader, and advisor. If you get a good one, they can help teach you new skills, connect you with key figures within their network, and steer you in the right directions when it comes to your future career. A bad one? You might deal with some unrealistic expectations, friction between you and them, and leave you scrambling when it comes to paper edits, funding, or general support... which could lead to a delay in your graduation. YIKES.
Social sciences, arts, and humanities doctoral programs often require applicants to indicate a potential supervisor when applying. When shopping around, what should you be thinking about before making the BIG DECISION? Here are 10 things to consider when picking an advisor.
The Actual Person
I know it seems a bit funny to put this first... but think about it. If you don't like the person behind the label "supervisor," are you going to enjoy the doctoral process at all? Chances are, probably not. Make sure you get along with your potential supervisor(s) on a basic human-to-human level before taking any steps forward.
First of all, you should make sure that you and your potential supervisor-to-be actually are interested in the same stuff. Check out their latest research/publications to make sure you aren't proposing a project about sea cucumbers to someone who is an expert in Shakespeare.
Secondly: you will spend the next couple of years studying a tiny sliver of your field of research that you and your advisor establish... make sure that it interests you. Read up on the recent literature on the topic, especially any review papers!
Their working style
It’s also important to figure out whether your working style is compatible with your prospective adviser’s style. What works for you might not work for them, and vice versa. While someone don't want their supervisor to constantly look over their shoulder, others might prefer someone who keeps regular tabs on them.
Regardless of the working style, make sure to find someone who is willing to devote time to nurturing your development during this point of your academic career, and also gives you room to grow on your own. What I have found that works for me during this point of my career is someone who monitors my progress (while letting me be largely self-sufficient) and is willing to make time for when I really get stuck or need help on something.
expectations: yours vs theirs
As you can tell from the above, you and your supervisor might have different ideas how to tackle the workload that will come from your PhD. So it's a good idea to make sure you have similar expectations for the next few years. (Of course, some unexpected curveballs can throw everything out the window... like an illness, death in the family, pregnancy, or pandemic) There is largely no "normal" outisde of making sure you feel comfortable and are willing to get outside your comfort zone sometimes to grow into the researcher you will become. Some good things to find out about are:how many papers you are expected to publish, what sort of meetings will be weekly or month, what your general lab duties are (maintaining equipment, TA-ing a class, advising undergraduates).
How Supportive they are
While you are pursuing your PhD, you are going to have setbacks, get discouraged, suffer from imposter syndrome, and basically doubt your entire existence. You are going to need someone who believes in you, your work, and is willing to give you that pep talk or extra support when you need it.
I looked for someone who was willing to invest their time and their resources into me, while also being caring, considerate, encouraging, and sympathetic. For example, my main PhD advisor has been all of those things - especially when I was going through my (excrutiating) divorce and then the pandemic stranded me across the country. Find someone who is understanding... especially in the climate we are in today (afterall, we are still in a pandemic that is screwing everything up)!
Supervising a student - especially a PhD one - takes particular skills and while some people are amazing researchers... they may not be the best supervisors. In order to successfully get your students across the "Ph-inisheD line," you need a particular set of skills: people management, patience, mentoring, etc.
One way to make sure your possible supervisor has those skills (aka you can rely on them to help you get a degree and make you industry-ready) is to see if they have mentored anyone before. Do they have any successful supervisions (to PhD completion)? If so, that's a good sign! Equally, there's no rule to say that someone with no experience/just beginning their professor track will make a bad supervisor... if anything, they might give you some great advice and guidance because they are a bit younger.
You may have one (or two... or three, like me) official supervisors for your PhD, there is no limit to how many people you can turn to for advice and guidance. (This is true for all life) One thing I did before saying "yes" to any of my advisors was asking students who have had them in the past. Some of the questions I asked were:
I wanted to make sure the supervisors I chose would be someone I could relate to and was supportive in a personal way, but also wouldn't be shy about giving me constructive criticism on my work.
All of the above are so, so critical. But sometimes prestige is something that should be considered, especially since receiving a reference letter from a well-known professor — or from a top-notch university — can give you a boost when you are looking for a job.
Choosing a PhD supervisor is a big step in your academic career and not something that should be taken lightly... or rushed. Make sure to do this search well ahead of any deadlines (check out my academic checklist here) and remember to take your time!
What are some tips you would give to someone who is looking for a phd advisor?
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Hi! I'm Melissa, an Australian-based Latina science educator, podcaster, and freelance writer. I spend a lot more time on Instagram and Twitter, but blogging is my first love. Thanks for stopping by — I hope you stay a while.
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