• Danni Reches

How to pick a supervisor

We’ve had a few guests on our podcast talk about their amazing and supportive supervisors, while others preferred not to say anything about their supervisors in public. The team behind ‘What are YOU going to do with THAT?’ picked up on this topic fast and dedicated one episode to communication, feedback and setting expectations between an Early Career Researcher (ECR) and the supervisor (eps. 16 with Dr. Renske de Kleijn). In this blog post we take a step back and provide you with what to consider when you choose a supervisor for your research project.

Choosing carefully is very important as the supervisor will be the person who introduces you to the world of advanced research and guides you throughout your PhD journey. You will built a certain kind of relationship with your supervisor and it is therefore crucial to not

randomly apply for any position just to get accepted somewhere with someone.

Let’s start with mentioning that it is not always possible to choose. You could be limited in your options to choose when you’re part of a smaller institution for example, and in STEM you’re often joined with the study of the supervisor, according to the needs of the laboratory.

Criteria to consider

When you do have a choice, several criteria should be considered:

Character - The first is that of the character of the potential supervisor. The person should not be best friend material, but knowing that the supervisor would be willing to meet with their students for advice, responds to their students’ emails regularly, and supports the students with recommendation letters when requested are very helpful features.

Field relevancy - Secondly, of course, is the potential supervisor’s relevance to the field and topic you will be working on. The closer your supervisor’s interest is in your work, the better he or she will be able to advise you on the current state of the research and where to publish yours.

Promoting ECRs - Another criteria we recommend to consider involves looking ahead. Would your potential supervisor promote young researchers during and towards the end of the doctoral degree in finding a post-doc position or anything else you are interested in pursuing after finishing the PhD?

Do your homework

In order to find out whether the supervisor you have in mind meets your criteria, it is advisable to talk to other doctoral students of that supervisor. Shoot them an email or ask to meet for a coffee and you’ll soon find out what you can expect from the supervisor.

A different way to learn more about the supervisor is to address them directly. Nevena Rebic spoke in one of our podcast episodes about this approach and it worked out very well – she got the PhD position with her very supportive supervisor. Most potential supervisors have certain hours for students to walk into their office or you could make an appointment.

An additional tip is to learn what the expectations are that the potential supervisor has of you as a student before you choose that person to guide you. If you cannot meet in person, because you live far away or due to the pandemic restrictions, try to find out through an online meeting.

Remember: the role of the supervisor is to guide you with your independent research project. It is not their task to hold your hand and give you daily tasks. This is what makes doing a PhD difficult, but it is part of the learning process. Eventually you will be a trained independent problem-solver, which is a major skill in any industry.

Tips for working together

Sometimes your supervisor could have a different vision of the direction they want your research to go into that doesn’t fit how you would like to move forward. We received some advice from our podcast guest Dr. Jonathan Kolieb for when this situation occurs. Once you know your field very well and are trained in research and writing, Jonathan said that at some point you might need to draw the line and say to your supervisor that you disagree with their point of view. That is ok and part of the research process. Just make sure you communicate this in a decent manner and elaborate your arguments.

Lastly, we will not shy away from the elephant in the room. What if you do not get along well enough with your chosen supervisor? Our recommendation in this case would be to get an additional or second supervisor on board. This way, you do not burn any bridges with your original supervisor and you will be able to receive the guidance you need from the other one. You could explain your interest in a second supervisor as adding to the quality of your research or the expertise from a slightly different angle that the additional supervisor could bring to the work.

In a few cases an unhealthy relationship develops between the student and supervisor that doesn’t allow you to continue your research in a professional manner. Sometimes it is better to switch to another supervisor than to get stuck for too long in a situation that could affect your mental health and career.

What do you think about choosing supervisors? Based on what criteria did you pick yours? Would you advice others to work with your supervisor? Contact us through our twitter account @What2DoWithTHAT.

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