Choosing a PhD supervisor

Choosing a PhD supervisor

Researching and writing a PhD in the humanities can be a long and lonely journey. With drop-out rates at some UK universities topping 40%, it's important to find a supervisor who can see you through to submission. The ideal supervisor should give you sound research advice, steer you clear of pitfalls in your writing, and help kickstart your career. Most of all, they should be there when you need them.

Making a list of potential supervisors

By the time you’ve decided to do a PhD, you should have a good idea what line of research you wish to pursue. This is your starting point. A supervisor engaged in similar research and who understands your future field is the person best qualified to point out gaps in your scholarly knowledge.

  • Check out university departmental websites to find academics who share your interests. Keep in mind that if you are applying for a grant, you will need to restrict your search to universities with a good funding status.
  • Use research databases like CiteSeerX or Google Scholar to find recently published work in your area. If someone’s work excites you, they may make a good supervisor.
  • Get advice from current or former lecturers – they may know who’s who in your proposed field and have an idea of who is good to work with.

Go for scholars who are highly regarded in their field, but not necessarily over-worked superstars. An academic with good credentials and a bit of experience won’t send you on any wild goose chases. Moreover, if you intend to work in academia at the end of your PhD, a letter of recommendation from a respected name will add value to your job applications.

Making contact

If you have the opportunity, attend a lecture, seminar or conference where you know your potential supervisor will be in attendance and chat to them afterwards. Better yet, get someone you know – an academic advisor or tutor – to introduce you. Going to conferences and seminars shows you’re already part of the academic community and can make a good impression. And like it or not, networking is all part of the game.

Whether you’ve met your potential supervisor already or are approaching them for the first time, you’ll need to send a letter and research proposal. While a catchy or informal email may seem more relaxed, it is also more likely to attract the delete button. Go for a professional approach. Remember, this correspondence may determine the next 3–7 years of your life, so it’s important to get it right.

Your letter should include:

  • a brief description of your proposed line of research
  • why you would like to work with them; you should mention what work of theirs you have found interesting or helpful in relation to your own research
  • degrees, distinctions, grants, and relevant experience
  • when you will be available to start
  • what, if any, funding you are applying for
  • a polite request for a meeting, showing that you have respect for their time

Along with the letter, it is a good idea to send a strong research proposal with the sort of detail that suggests you've already looked into the subject in some depth. (You’ll need this to get accepted into a PhD programme anyway.)

If you don’t hear back within a week, don’t panic, just drop them a gentle reminder. Academics are busy people with great demands on their time, so they may have forgotten to respond. However, if you don’t hear from them after a few weeks, look elsewhere.

Meeting a potential supervisor: What to do and what to look for

When you meet a potential supervisor, they’ll be testing your mettle, so make sure you have a few intellectual gold nuggets up your sleeve. Knowing something about their work can also make you appear informed and up-to-date. But remember, you’re checking them out as well. Here’s what to look for:

  • If the potential supervisor seems approachable and genuinely interested in discussing your topic with you, this is a good sign. Having a good rapport with your supervisor is important. If they like you personally, they won’t mind giving up their Tuesday lunch hour when you arrive at their office with a crisis of confidence.
  • Ask them how they generally support PhD students – their answer will be telling. Many academics prioritise undergraduate teaching and their own research over PhD supervision, meeting PhD students at best once a term. Others make time every week. Beware the supervisor who takes on PhD students to beef up their own profile for the research assessment exercise, only to leave them adrift.
  • Find out if they have many travel commitments or are planning to go on sabbatical. The last thing you need on a foggy January morning when you've a burning question is to discover your supervisor has mysteriously disappeared to another continent.
  • Mention any personal circumstances that might impact the way you work, for example, if you have a family or need to work remotely. Are they sympathetic to your needs? How would the arrangement work for them?
  • At any whiff of impropriety – run a mile. Decency in all areas is essential in a good supervisor, and unpleasant complications surrounding your relationship can ruin your PhD experience.

Making your final decision

You’re lucky enough to have found two or three well-regarded academics who are willing to supervise you, share your interests, and seem personable. What next? Before you make your final decision, you’ll need to consider a few last things.

  • If possible, talk to other PhD students who have the individual as a supervisor and find out what their experiences are. Has the supervisor given them the support they need?
  • Find out how many successful theses they have supervised. As Professor Tara Brabazon says, “The key predictor of a supervisor’s ability to guide a postgraduate to completion is a good record of having done so.”
  • Consider the reputation of the university. This name will follow you when you apply for jobs. Top universities carry more weight.
  • Check out the university’s guidelines or policy for PhD supervision. These will give you a sense of what the university expects as a minimum amount of support for PhD students.