Finding the right PhD supervisor


Introduction


Your PhD will last several years, and your supervisor will likely have a big impact on your experience (although in some programmes you may be required to rotate between different advisors or labs). We think the quality of your relationship with your supervisor, their availability, skills and alignment with your goals can make a significant difference to your own development and the trajectory of your career, especially if you stay in research.


How does this advice apply to your situation?


Not all students will need to identify a supervisor before beginning a PhD. For example, in America it’s common to be allowed a year or two in a PhD programme before identifying a research question and supervisor. This advice applies primarily to students who need to find a supervisor as part of the application process, although we suggest all students check that there are some supervisors on the programmes they apply to who they would like to work with.

We think it’s valuable to seek out additional advice tailored to your specific situation. Here are some ways to get more advice:

  • Apply to our coaching and we’ll connect you with experienced researchers who are open to mentoring students, and invite you to our community.
  • If you have identified a supervisor who seems like a good fit and is accepting students, we suggest you reach out to current or former students they supervised to hear about their experiences. We will discuss this more later.
  • Email people who are where you would like to be in your career in a few years, and ask if they are willing to talk to you. We think most students don’t reach out to others enough for this kind of advice, but many people are happy to share their experiences. Check out this podcast for a brief discussion of how to increase the value of these conversations.
  • Connect with organisations who can offer advice focused on the research direction you’re interested in. For example:
  • Look at online guides to see the steps involved in finding a PhD in different countries, for example this and this overview for the UK, this for PhDs in the USA or this series about PhD study in various countries.


Finding potential supervisors


Where to look


Here are some ideas of how to find potential supervisors:

  • apply for access to our database of potential supervisors working in the research areas we recommend.
  • look through department faculty pages of universities that meet your location preferences and/or that are the top universities for your research area.
  • ask current PhD students in your preferred research direction for recommendations.
  • read the title and abstract of research articles, papers, and recently submitted dissertations relevant to your interests and note down the authors whose work you particularly liked.
  • follow academics doing relevant research on academic twitter. This can be useful both for seeing the latest papers and discourse and learning about open PhD positions.
  • network at conferences and lectures.

Consider keeping a spreadsheet of the programmes and supervisors you’re interested in, listing factors such as location, research fit and funding that you want to take into account. It will also help you follow up 1-2 weeks later if you have a record of who you contacted.

Universities will have different policies on who can supervise PhDs. If you find someone during your search who seems like a great fit but can’t be a primary supervisor, they may be willing to be your secondary supervisor or mentor.

Check as soon as possible whether a supervisor you’re interested in is accepting students during the upcoming application cycle before investing more effort in learning about them or the relevant university or lab.


Choosing between potential supervisors


The following are some factors we suggest keeping in mind when deciding which supervisors might be a good fit for you.


Expertise in the methodology you want to use


While it is helpful to have a supervisor who has a good understanding of the topic/concept you want to study, having a supervisor (or research group) with strong expertise in a methodology you want to master may be more important to your development, as long as they are receptive to your topic.


Availability


This is something you can try to gauge by talking to the supervisor and their students. If an academic is earlier in their career, their career progression will depend on supervising students, so it's likely they will be more hands-on, while later-career academics often give more autonomy, but this is only a general rule.


The team and community you will be part of


If you’re in a collaborative environment, a lot of value in your PhD will likely come from interactions with your peers. We therefore suggest you try to get a sense of the community you would be joining (including how much interaction you are likely to have with others, how high performing the students are and what the work culture is like).

One way of gauging how high performing your peers would be is to look at the careers of alumni of the research group. You may also want to meet with some of the students you would be working with. The university's ranking should also serve as a reasonable heuristic. If you’re interested in learning more about university rankings and what aspects of them are relevant to PhD students, you could check out this article from findaphd and see the Times world university rankings.


Experiences of other students


If you're interested in working with a particular supervisor, we suggest emailing current and former students to ask about their experiences.

You could ask:

  • about the supervisor’s personality and strengths and weaknesses as a supervisor.
  • how often they’re available for meetings.
  • how frequently they give feedback.
  • the kind of work culture they foster (e.g. how collaborative is it?).
  • what their expectations are of students, for example regarding work hours.
  • what the student wishes they had known before starting.
  • to what extent the supervisor supports students in choosing what to work on.

Reputation of the supervisor and university

The importance of your supervisor’s and university’s reputation is different depending on whether you plan to stay in academia long term.

If you want to pursue an academic career it’s generally helpful to seek a supervisor with high prestige who will encourage you to publish (you can check if they have a track record of publishing with students and whether the papers are published in respected journals). The reputation of your PhD supervisor will also affect how a letter of recommendation from them is received if you apply for academic or postdoc positions later.

If you plan to pursue a non-academic career, a supervisor who encourages the development of transferable non-academic skills may be valuable, as well as someone who collaborates with non-academic organisations where you can do practical research. There are some careers outside of academia, such as policy and public-facing roles, where having attended a top university is particularly useful, but the reputation of your supervisor specifically is likely less important.

If you plan to leave academia, you should also consider whether you actually need to do a PhD to meet your career goals. You could read advice on the pros and cons of getting a PhD, for example here. We’d also suggest researching for yourself how common PhDs are amongst people who are where you would like to be in your career in the future and looking at the career trajectories they followed.


How should you weigh up these factors?


It’s unlikely that you’ll find a supervisor or research group that rates very highly on all these factors, so here are some of our thoughts on how the importance of them compares.

We think that working with a supervisor and research group with particularly strong research skills is more important if you want to stay in research long term, but if you’re pursuing a PhD primarily for having credentials, it’s not such an important factor. We think talking to other students about their experience of the culture you’ll be joining and looking at the kind of jobs they tend to obtain is also likely to be especially useful.

In terms of supervisor availability, it is worth considering how independent you already are as a researcher – some people prefer a supervisor who gives them less oversight. If a potential supervisor doesn’t seem very available, you may want to pay more attention to whether there are other researchers whose work you are excited about. If you’re in a collaborative setting, postdocs and experienced PhDs will likely play a key role in providing informal supervision.


Contacting potential supervisors


As a prospective PhD student you may want to contact potential supervisors informally before submitting a research proposal, for example to find out if they are interested in your ideas and discuss what it would be like to work with them. However, it is sometimes against university policy to discuss a prospective application before applying officially, so check whether this is mentioned before reaching out.

Anecdotally, you’re more likely to be accepted if you have connected with a potential supervisor who is excited about working with you before submitting an official application.

Below are some tips for reaching out to potential supervisors.


Do your research


Before you contact supervisors:

  • If you haven’t already, check whether their university profile has information about their availability and interests.
  • Look at some of their recent research to show you’re engaged and to check their work is relevant to your interests. Researchers and research teams will have their own ideologies that you will likely need to adopt to some extent in your research, so check if the approach resonates with you.

Writing an initial email

Be concise

Academics get a lot of emails, so give some thought to how you can make yours easy to engage with. We suggest:

  • Put a subject line that makes the purpose of your email clear (e.g. ‘enquiry from prospective PhD applicant for Sept 2021’)
  • Keep it short – one paragraph should be enough.
  • Check you’ve made a clear request, ideally at the beginning of the email after introducing yourself, so the supervisor knows what to respond to.

Briefly and clearly describe your goals

If you’re not expressing interest in a PhD programme with predetermined research questions, explain the research you want to pursue, why you believe it is important, and, if possible, how your previous research connects and how it would fit into the broader picture of your goals.

Be informative

You should generally include:

  • your qualifications.
  • your research interests
  • that you’re emailing regarding a specific opportunity you saw advertised if this is the case.

Build connection

  • Check the academic’s title (e.g. Professor/Dr) and use it in the first email (after that it’s fine to follow their lead).
  • Say if you were referred by a current/former student, saw them give a talk or have read their research.
  • Explain why you are interested in working with them (ideally how their recent research connects to your topic).
  • Thank them for their time at the end of your email.
  • Suggest a meeting in case the supervisor wants to discuss things in depth, using a scheduling tool such as Calendly to make it as easy as possible to schedule. (Some universities have a rule against students and academics having an informal meeting before interviews, so this might not be possible).

If you don't hear back

We suggest sending a gentle check-in email about a week later, and then it’s best to move on. Not hearing back doesn’t mean you got anything wrong – often academics simply have more emails than they can keep on top of.


Meeting potential supervisors


If a prospective supervisor is open to meeting you, you could ask them if they want to see your research proposal prior to the meeting (this will also give you the chance to ask for feedback during the meeting).

In a meeting, you may find it useful to ask:

  • how they would describe their style of supervising students (e.g. the frequency of meetings and amount of guidance they give).
  • how much collaboration typically occurs between supervisees.
  • what they expect from the students they supervise (for example regarding work hours).
  • whether they have feedback on your proposal, if they saw this before meeting.
  • if this isn’t clear, whether they are open to supervising the kind of research you’re interested in.
  • to what extent they let students choose topics themselves. 
  • what characteristics they consider important in prospective students.
  • whether there might be funding available from the supervisor, or whether you are expected to seek external funding (and any sources they recommend).
  • what would happen if they moved institutions during your PhD and whether they’re intending to stay at the university for several years.
  • whether there is a small project you could work on with them. This can provide particularly strong evidence of your ability, as it enables the supervisor to observe your work directly, and it gives you additional opportunities to learn more about how the supervisor works.


Finding a secondary supervisor


If you’re interested in finding a secondary supervisor, we suggest the first step you take is to discuss this with your primary supervisor once you’ve established a working relationship with them, to check whether they are supportive in principle. They may also be the best person to connect you with a secondary supervisor.


Finding a secondary supervisor can be particularly helpful if:

  • there’s some aspect of your topic or approach that your supervisor or research group isn’t very familiar with or aligned with (which is more likely if you’re working on a topic that is relatively neglected) and you’re aware of researchers with relevant expertise in other universities or in industry/research institutions.
  • you intend to work on an interdisciplinary topic and having a secondary supervisor from a different disciplinary background would be useful.
  • you want your research to be valuable for a research institution such as a think tank, and want someone from that institution as an advisor.
  • you’ve found an academic you think would be an especially good fit for you, but they’re not in a position to offer primary supervision.

Some suggestions for finding a secondary supervisor or mentor are:

  • signing up for our coaching, so we can connect you with potentially relevant researchers.
  • reaching out to academics in our list of potential supervisors.
  • reaching out to an organisation doing work you find interesting, to ask if they would be open to a research collaboration with you.


In the process of writing this advice we spoke with a number of people about their experiences of seeking a PhD supervisor. Thanks to Caspar Oesterheld, Matt Coleman, Vivian Belenky, Bill Wildi, Linda Linsefors and Jaime Sevilla for their valuable feedback and ideas.