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How to choose a good PhD supervisor

How to find a PhD supervisor

Study tips
Published 2 Mar, 2022  ·  5-minute read

Along with choosing your research topic and writing your proposal, selecting your supervisor is one of the crucial steps in starting your PhD journey. Join us and 2 current candidates as we explore how to find a PhD supervisor in Australia.

Your supervisor is going to be one of the most important people in your life for the next 3-4 years or more*.

*In fact, many PhD candidates become lifelong friends with their supervisors. But that’s a topic for another time.

So, you don’t want to find just any supervisor. For a fulfilling and successful candidature, you need to know how to choose a good PhD supervisor – as well as understanding what to expect from your PhD supervisor.

We spoke with 2 UQ PhD candidates, Sarah Kendall and Chelsea Janke, about how to find a PhD supervisor who aligns with you and your research project.

Get googling

We’re not kidding. The best starting point is to jump online and start researching your options.

Sure, Google might not be your go-to platform once you’re researching your actual thesis. But for finding potential supervisors, Sarah believes it’s not a bad place to start.

“The first thing I would recommend to find the best supervisor for you is to do a whole lot of googling,” says Sarah.

“Google different academics, read about their areas of research, and compile a list of academics whose research aligns with your areas of interest.”

You likely already know some academics to google from your undergraduate or postgraduate studies. However, you can also explore potential PhD supervisors on university websites like UQ’s researchers hub.

Create a shortlist

As you’re researching your options, take note of any academics who seem like they could be a great fit.

You might find it helpful to use a spreadsheet or similar file to keep track of your shortlist, including details such as:

  • name
  • university and school
  • contact details
  • link to their research page.

Consider including a space to write down 1-2 unique things that put each academic on your shortlist. For example, you may have studied under them previously and enjoyed their approach to teaching, or perhaps one of their recent projects is highly relevant to what you wish to research.

Meet with your potential supervisors

An important step in how to find a PhD supervisor is to find out what they’re like in person. This means contacting and setting up a time to meet each person on your shortlist.

Chelsea suggests an introductory email to get the ball rolling.

“Send an email briefly outlining who you are, your background, and what your research interests are,” she says.

Then it’s time to organise a face-to-face (or at least a screen-to-screen), and Sarah reckons this is the moment you’ll know whether it’s a match or not.

“I would recommend meeting with as many of the academics on your list as possible – whether in person or via Zoom,” says Sarah.

“Once you’ve talked with a potential supervisor, you’ll know immediately if they’re a good fit for your project – trust your gut!”

"You want a supervisor who is encouraging, communicates well, and is enthusiastic about you and your project." - Sarah Kendall

Sarah’s advisory team consists of 3 supervisors: Dr Caitlin Goss, Professor Heather Douglas, and Dr Robin Fitzgerald. Here’s what drew her to these academics:

“I chose this supervisory team because they’re all incredible role models and mentors for young women who are seeking a research career. They are open and encouraging, and I know they’ll always support me through the highs and the lows. Each of them also brings a unique skill set and body of expertise, which is important to me because I like approaching problems from different perspectives.”

But what if you meet multiple academics who fit the brief?

Well, that’s when understanding yourself becomes the tiebreaker. Chelsea believes knowing your personal preferences can help you choose a good PhD supervisor to match your work style.

“Identifying if a PhD supervisor might be good for you will be an individual thing,” says Chelsea.

“Some students want a supervisor who lets them be very independent, while others prefer someone who gives them very detailed instructions and has a lot of time for them.”

"Think about what you want and aim to find someone who meets those criteria." - Chelsea Janke

Sarah agrees that finding a PhD supervisor who gels with your personality should be a top priority.

“At the end of the day, you need to choose someone who you’re comfortable with, as you’ll be working with them for the next 3-4 years,” she says.

Speak with other students

Chelsea believes a great route to find out what to expect from your PhD supervisor is to talk to candidates who have researched with them.

“The best way to get a feel for how someone is as a supervisor is to ask their current or past students,” she says.

Things you can discover about a potential supervisor by speaking with their students include:

  • whether they have a hands-on or hands-off approach
  • if they’re easy to talk to
  • who else they work with (e.g. other academics relevant to your research)
  • whether they have funds
  • how many other students they’re supervising at the moment.

These conversations with other candidates can reaffirm the vibe you got from your meeting with the academic, or it might encourage you to seek out someone who wasn’t that high on your shortlist.

Consider having multiple supervisors

You know what they say. Two’s company. Three’s a more comfortable PhD experience.

Did you know you can have more than a single PhD supervisor? Chelsea is quick to remind us of this, though she also warns against turning your research project into a research party by inviting too many academics.

“Keep in mind that you can have multiple supervisors, so one supervisor may have the funds while another may have more time for you,” she says.

“Although, having more than three supervisors is probably going to get very tricky to manage!”

In fact, if you do your PhD at UQ, you’ll conduct your research with an advisory team consisting of a principal adviser and at least one associate adviser.

Want to learn more from Sarah and Chelsea? Easy:

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