Choosing the right PhD supervisor for you
Choosing the right PhD supervisor
This is advice we’ve collected for students who have decided that a PhD is the right path for them, are aiming to do impactful research and seeking an academic supervisor.
This post does not cover whether or not you should be doing a PhD. If you’re unsure whether to pursue a PhD, you might find useful advice in our post on testing your fit for a research career instead. You could also apply for our coaching for more personalised advice.
- The supervisor-supervisee relationship will probably have a big impact on your experience of getting a PhD, your development, and your prospects after your PhD. Your supervisor will likely be your primary mentor for several years, so it’s worth investing time in finding a good match.
- You could find a supervisor through reading academic papers, being on academic twitter, looking at university faculty webpages, talking to students and academics, networking at conferences or via our database of potential supervisors.
- Key factors to consider when finding a supervisor include their research expertise, supervision style and academic reputation. Also consider the departmental/lab community you would be joining.
- Meeting a potential supervisor seems like a good way to gauge fit, but speaking to students who have worked with your potential supervisor is particularly important for deciding if they’d be a good fit for you and support your development. Doing a short project with a prospective supervisor if possible will likely also be particularly informative.
We’re sharing this advice because:
- We want to support impact-oriented students, who have decided a PhD is the right path for them, to make good decisions when finding a supervisor.
- We’d like to hear about people’s experiences and tips for finding and working with supervisors (and academics’ experiences of supervising students!). If you want to suggest changes or additions to this advice, please reach out to us.
In the process of writing this advice we received feedback from a number of people based on their PhD experiences; thanks to Caspar Oesterheld, Matt Coleman, Vivian Belenky, Bill Wildi, Linda Linsefors, Adrià Garriga-Alonso and Jaime Sevilla for their valuable feedback and ideas. Contributors to this post didn’t necessarily review or agree with all points made, and all errors remain our own.
How important is finding the right PhD supervisor?
Your supervisor will likely be your main point of contact for academic support during your PhD. The quality of your relationship and your supervisor’s availability, style of supervision and alignment with your goals will probably make a big difference to your experience – in terms of your wellbeing, whether you’re supported to do the research you want, and even whether you complete your PhD.
Your supervisor’s research skills will likely also affect your own development as a researcher. This paper (see the summary here) finds that supervisors who produce prize-winning academic research seem to increase the chance their supervisees go on to do the same; ‘students who studied under a future prizewinner were almost six times more likely to become superstars in their field than equally talented students of non-prizewinners.’
When should you search for a supervisor?
Universities often expect that students will identify and connect with a specific supervisor before formally applying for a PhD. Even if you’re applying to a programme that involves spending a year or two doing classes before choosing a research focus and supervisor, it’s still useful to reach out to check if the supervisor(s) on the programme seem like a good fit for you. Anecdotally, your application is also more likely to be accepted if a supervisor is already excited about working with you.
Before you reach out, check there’s no rule against reaching out written on the supervisor’s profile or programme webpage, as some universities and programmes have a rule against students contacting supervisors before formally applying.
There are many guides online if you want to see the steps typically involved in finding a PhD programme in different countries, for example this and this overview for the UK, this guide for the USA or this series about PhD study in various countries.
Factors to consider when searching for a supervisor
In addition to considerations like location and funding availability, here are some key factors that might be useful to gather information on during the process of finding a supervisor.
The supervisor’s research expertise
Working with a supervisor and research group with particularly strong research skills and a strong track record is very helpful if you want to stay in research long term (if you’re pursuing a PhD primarily for credentials, it is likely not quite such an important factor). Looking at the h-index of supervisors you’re considering, reading research papers yourself and considering the opinions of other academics are some ways of getting a general sense of this.
In terms of specific expertise, while it’s certainly helpful if your supervisor or research group has a good understanding of the topic or concept you want to study, strong expertise in a methodology you want to master may be more important to your development as a researcher, as long as they are receptive to your topic. Having a secondary supervisor with strong expertise in the specific topic or concept you want to study, as well as a primary supervisor with expertise in the methodology you want to use, can be a good way to balance this, although programmes and supervisors will have different policies on this.
Researchers and research teams will also have their own ideologies that you will likely need to adopt to some extent in your own research, so look at some of their research and check if the approach resonates with you when deciding if they would be a good fit.
The supervisor’s and university’s academic reputation
Particularly if you want to pursue an academic career, a supervisor’s academic reputation and research success is also worth considering because the reputation of your supervisor will affect how a letter of recommendation from them is received if you apply for academic or postdoc positions after your PhD. For careers outside of academia, such as policy and public-facing roles, having attended a top university is also particularly likely to be useful.
Style of supervision
Consider what style of supervision would work well for you – how independently or intensively do you want to work, for example? When talking to a potential supervisor or students who have worked with them, you might want to ask about the supervisor’s interpersonal style, what their expectations are of students, and how ‘hands on’ or ‘hands off’ they are (this post goes into more detail about the different dimensions you could consider regarding the latter point).
You can make some guesses about these factors before meeting potential supervisors or students. For example, if an academic is earlier in their career, their progression will depend on supervising students, so there’s generally a greater incentive for them to be more engaged as a supervisor and to graduate students quickly. More established academics often have wider research interests and allow supervisees more autonomy and flexibility.
As well as the style of support that will suit you in the near-term, consider what will help you achieve your long-term goals. Particularly if you may want a career in research, it’s useful to have a supervisor who will encourage you to publish, so you could check whether they have a track record of publishing with students and whether the papers are published in respected journals. If you’re largely doing a PhD because the credentials will further your career, you may generally want to seek out less time-intensive and challenging PhD experience.
Your impression of the departmental or laboratory community
The research community you join will likely also affect your wellbeing and development as a researcher. If you’re in a collaborative setting, postdocs and more experienced PhDs may play a key role in providing informal supervision, which might be particularly relevant if you want to work with a supervisor who has limited availability.
If you’re seriously considering a PhD programme, try to talk to students and postdocs you’d be working with to get a sense of the culture you’d be joining. You could also look at alumni’s careers, the research of current students and the ranking of the university to try to gauge how the environment would help you develop as a researcher. If you want to learn more about university rankings and what aspects of them are relevant to PhD students, check out this article from findaphd and see the Times world university rankings and QS World University Rankings.
Finding potential supervisors
Where to look
If you’re looking for a potential supervisor, you may find it helpful to:
- apply to access our database of potential supervisors working in the research directions we recommend.
- network at conferences and lectures.
- look through the department faculty webpages of universities that meet your location preferences and/or that are the top universities for your research area.
- ask PhD students and academics working in your preferred research direction for recommendations. Professors at your university may be willing to leverage their own network to help you, and academics involved in EA may also be willing to help.
- read the abstracts of research articles, papers, and recently submitted dissertations relevant to your interests and note down the authors whose work you particularly like. This step can also be useful to increase the chance of a successful application later.
- follow academics doing relevant research on ‘academic twitter’ (i.e. the informal network of academics who use twitter to discuss research, opportunities and experiences). This can be useful for seeing recent papers and discussions, learning about open PhD positions, and getting some insight into potential supervisors.
- do a database search to find researchers who have produced highly cited and relevant publications. Options include Web of Science, Scopus, Dimensions, Semantic Scholar and Research Rabbit. You could also use Elicit, an AI research assistant.
- join our online community and ask for advice there, or explore other student forums.
When you find a potential supervisor you’re interested in, check whether they are accepting students during the upcoming application cycle before investing more effort. Consider keeping a spreadsheet of the programmes and supervisors you’re interested in, with relevant factors (e.g. location, research fit and funding) to help you narrow options down. When you start reaching out to supervisors, this will also help you follow up 1-2 weeks later if you have a record of who you contacted, as well as keeping track of application deadlines. (If you do this, we’d love to see the results! Please send them to us here).
Contacting potential supervisors
Writing an initial email
Below are some tips for reaching out to potential supervisors.
Do your research
Before you contact supervisors, check whether their university profile has relevant information about their availability or details about whether and how they want to be contacted. Assistant and associate professors are particularly likely to be seeking students. If their profile doesn’t say they are seeking students, check this with them briefly before sending a longer email.
Academics get a lot of emails, so make your email easy to engage with.
- Use a subject line that makes it clear why you’re reaching out (e.g. ‘initial enquiry about PhD opportunities for Sept 2021’)
- Keep it short -– a couple of paragraphs is usually enough.
- Ask a clear question at the beginning of the email after introducing yourself, so the supervisor knows what to respond to.
Briefly but clearly describe your goals
Explain the research question you want to answer, why you believe it’s important, and, if possible, how your previous research connects to it and how it would fit into the broader picture of your goals. You’ll stand out more if you’re sincerely trying to answer an open research question in your field. However, if there’s some flexibility in your interests then mention this too – it might increase the likelihood the supervisor will be open to working with you.
You should generally also include:
- your qualifications.
- that you’re emailing regarding a specific opportunity if this is the case.
- your funding status, for example if you’ve already secured external funding or are planning to apply for funding.
- the country you’re currently in.
- Check the supervisor’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 (and ideally how their recent research connects to your topic).
- Offer to schedule a call if the supervisor wants to discuss things further (or ask if they’re open to a call if you want to meet with them). Use a tool such as Calendly to make scheduling easier.
- Thank them for their time at the end of your email.
If you don’t hear back
We suggest sending a check-in email 1-2 weeks later, and then it’s best to move on. Not hearing back doesn’t mean you got anything wrong – academics usually get more emails than they can keep on top of.
Meeting potential supervisors
If you arrange a meeting with a potential supervisor, you could ask them if they want to see your research proposal (if relevant) prior to the meeting (this will also give you the chance to ask for feedback during the meeting).
Potentially useful topics to discuss include:
- their style of supervising students. For example:
- how much contact they have with students they supervise.
- how much collaboration occurs between their supervisees.
- what they expect from the students they supervise (e.g. is there a certain number of papers students need to publish? What work hours do they expect?).
- the extent to which they let students choose topics themselves.
- what characteristics they consider important in supervisees.
- your knowledge of your own working style and goals, and whether they feel you would be a good fit for each other.
- what topics they would be most excited to have a PhD working on, to give you the opportunity to better tailor your formal application to these interests if they overlap with yours.
- whether they have suggestions of things you should do to supplement your PhD or whether there are professional development opportunities they encourage.
- whether they have feedback on your proposal, if they saw this before meeting.
- whether having a secondary/external supervisor is something they would potentially be supportive of, if secondary supervision is something you think you will need.
- if there might be funding available from them, or whether you will need to seek external funding (and any sources they recommend).
- whether they’re intending to stay at the university for several years (e.g. whether they have a sabbatical planned) and what would happen if they moved institutions during your PhD.
- whether they can connect you with some of their current PhD students.
- whether there is a project you could work on with them as a way of testing fit. 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 whether the supervisor and broader environment would be a good fit for you.
Experiences of other students
If you’re seriously considering a particular supervisor/lab, we suggest contacting some current or former students to ask them about their experiences (you might find students’ names on the lab’s, department’s or supervisor’s webpage). Although meeting with supervisors can be very useful, we suggest giving more weight to students’ experiences of what it is like to be a researcher in the lab or to be supervised by the academic you are considering.
Potentially useful topics include:
- the supervisor’s interpersonal style.
- how available the supervisor is and what kind of support they offer.
- the work culture (e.g. how collaborative it is).
- how much autonomy students have in deciding what to work on.
- expectations of students, for example regarding work hours.
- whether there’s anything they wish they had known before starting.
Finding a secondary supervisor
Much of the advice above will be applicable to a search for either a primary or secondary supervisor. If you find a researcher who seems like a great fit as your supervisor but can’t be a primary supervisor, take note – they may be willing to be a secondary supervisor if you need one, or collaborate with you at some stage of your PhD.
If you feel support from a secondary supervisor is necessary, discuss this with your primary supervisor first, to check they are supportive in principle.
Finding a secondary supervisor can be particularly helpful if:
- there’s some aspect of your topic or approach with which your supervisor or research group isn’t very familiar or aligned (which is more likely if you’re working on a topic that is relatively neglected).
- 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.
Some suggestions for finding secondary supervision or mentorship are:
- applying for our coaching, so we can connect you with 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.
Finding further advice
We think it’s valuable to seek out additional advice tailored to your situation (e.g. that’s specific to your location, discipline and the research direction you’re interested in).
Here are a few ways to get further advice:
- Apply to our coaching and we’ll help you reflect on your plans and connect you with experienced researchers who can advise you further.
- Apply to our online community of students. We can also introduce you to students we think you’re particularly likely to find helpful to talk to.
- Email people who are where you would like to be in a few years in their careers, and ask if they are willing to talk to you. We think most people don’t reach out to others enough for this kind of advice, but many people are happy to share their experiences. Check out this Clearer Thinking podcast episode for a brief discussion of how to increase the value of these conversations.
- Reach out to academics or organisations in the EA ecosystem – several organisations in EA have services specifically aimed at supporting aspiring researchers.
Good luck with your search!
We’d like to hear more about people’s experiences and tips for finding and working with supervisors (and academics’ experiences of supervising students!). If you want to suggest changes or additions to this advice, please reach out to us. Thanks!