How to find your PhD supervisor

Written By

Think Postgrad

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the role of a PhD Supervisor?
  • How to choose a good PhD Supervisor?
  • How to approach a potential PhD Supervisor?

Forget what you know about searching for a Masters degree. Finding your perfect PhD supervisor is a mini-research exercise in itself. Remember that they are a vital aspect of attaining your PhD and should be there to support you, and give you guidance and feedback. You may end up spending a lot of time with your supervisor, so it's important to pick the right one. Here are our top tips for success in choosing a PhD supervisor.

Tip one – Identify your PhD research interest

Your journey to becoming a Doctor of Philosophy will start with an understanding of what you want to research. In the UK, most doctoral degrees do not contain any formal taught element, so you are not comparing courses, but rather seeking to identify which universities undertake research in your specialism.

Good universities with strength in research will offer taught sessions to support PhD students – for example in time management – but don’t expect anyone teaching you your PhD.

Tip two – Investigate which universities offer your research specialism

So once you have an idea about what you want to research, use university websites to hone in on those which undertake research in your area. This may take some digging and you may well find the information laid out differently between universities. Ultimately you’re looking for research clusters, groups and finally staff who may be able to supervise you.

If you’re currently studying a similar or linked subject, it may be worth asking current tutors to recommend universities or even staff at the outset.

It can be a useful exercise to take the time to browse the staff section of a university website. You will often find that each of the professors and lecturers has a profile which will list their publications and specializations this could help you choose a PhD supervisor that is right for you. 

Tip three – The best PhD supervisor for you may not be the most renowned

Your tuition fees for your PhD are a bit of a misnomer. What you are actually paying for is access to research expertise and guidance. So it would be natural to assume that your best PhD supervisor is going to be that world-leading academic you’ve seen on the telly, who has written many peer-reviewed papers.

You could be the next Stephen Hawking, but if your perfect supervisor is so busy teaching, undertaking their own research and juggling a number of other PhD students, you may feel you are constantly playing second best.

In this case, and particularly if you fear you may be prone to procrastination, an early career researcher may actually be preferable. They are more likely to have time and energy to dedicate to you. 

The best PhD supervisors will have a lot of research expertise and will know their academic field inside out. It’s useful to check how relevant and up-to-date your potential supervisor’s expertise is. Some fields move quickly, so make sure their work is relevant with recent publications.

Finally, just get to know the potential PhD supervisor if you can. It can be hard to know if you will get on well with someone over email. If the opportunity is available, try and meet with them or potentially have a video call. This can go a long way to getting a feel for their personality. 

Tip four – Only approach your Supervisor once you have done all your preparation work

First impressions count! Before you pick up the phone or send that initial email, make sure you have refined and checked your research proposal. A research proposal is where you have gone beyond your initial idea to and come up with a research question and plan as to how you will answer it. There is support online and through university websites as to how to create a great research proposal, but remember your research proposal also needs to be unique. A PhD is about creating new knowledge – if the answer is already out there you may fall at the first hurdle.

Before you reach out make sure you are organised. Not only will this help you gain a supervisor, it will help you gain a PhD in the long run.

Tip five – Build a rapport with your Supervisor

You’ve done your homework, written an excellent research proposal, contacted possible supervisors and found someone who is willing to take you on. Well done you! The only trouble is, from your first conversations with them, they seem to have an irritating habit of divulging the details of their 19th century stamp collection which is sending you to sleep.

Finding someone who you can have a good working relationship with is key. If you think the rapport is unlikely to grow, then you may be better off backing away before you are formally enrolled.

Discuss your research proposal and how it relates to their research, find out what fascinates them about their work, and discover how they switch off when they’re not at work. All of this will help to keep the lines of communication open and help you overcome any hurdles on the path to becoming a doctor of philosophy.

If you can’t do this face-to-face, video calling is the next best thing and is increasingly becoming the new normal.

Tip six – Your perfect PhD supervisor is your critical friend, confidant and mentor

So in conclusion, when you find your perfect PhD supervisor it will be someone who you connect with and understands your thinking. They are as excited about your research as you are and are willing you to succeed. It’s best when your supervisor can is clear with deadlines but also is always there for advice and feedback. You can expect a close working relationship with them, but remember they are not there to do your research for you. You never know, you may even end up inviting them to your wedding!

Next Steps

We have a number of articles regarding the application process and sources of finance: –

Applying for a PhD or other Doctorate

Doctoral Loans are available to fund your PhD

Charities and Trusts can provide additional financial support

Next Steps

We have a number of articles regarding the application process and sources of finance: -