Choosing the Right Supervisor

One factor I underestimated when I started my PhD was supervision. I was thrilled about getting into a PhD programme, in Florence no less, and supervision seemed a matter of secondary importance. Oh, how wrong I was. The way I look at it now is that supervision is the single most important thing to get ‘right’ to have a positive PhD experience, and to set you up for further success down the line. A supervisor is a pivotal player, far more than a mentor or supervisor will have been during your earlier studies. It may be difficult to predict how supervision will pan out though, because no matter how ‘perfect’ the circumstances, supervising (as well as being supervised) is more challenging than generally acknowledged (good article in the Guardian on this here), and it is undervalued also. There generally are few incentives to put supervision at the top of the list of priorities.

In my own case my first supervisor had a bit of an anger problem, and bullied his PhDs. He had been recommended to me by a former professor of mine so to say I was surprised puts it mildly. Apparently he is better behaved with colleagues or superiors than with his PhDs! I was incredibly grateful to be able to switch supervisors after the first year. But even then things weren’t smooth sailing: my new supervisors were much better, but one was overloaded with work (he had 12 or so PhDs to supervise? I don’t recall the exact number, but there were too many) and the other was not specialised in my field. Come to think of it neither of them were exactly specialised in my field! Partly because my ‘field’ didn’t exist: I subscribed to an interdisciplinary pick and mix approach, which was highly original, but did not exactly fit with what anyone else was doing. It was a major hassle.

I was recalling these tales during one of my coaching calls. I’m working with someone who would like to do doctoral research and we were discussing the best strategy of where and how to apply.

With regard to applying to different departments I mentioned two important initial factors to consider when deciding to approach a potential supervisor:

1. Field/ Topic (Is the person an expert in your topic? Can you learn from him/ her? Does he/she belong to an academic ‘school’, research group or network you’d like to be part of)


2. Method (Do you have a similar inclination when it comes to methodological issues? Don’t underestimate this one. Academia is all about method.)

Other factors to consider are:

3. Availability (You don’t want to find yourself a few years in with a supervisor who only scans your work and barely answers your emails.)


4. Personality (Do you like them? Not entirely unimportant.)

When I went into academia I thought I would enter the land of the free thinkers, the open-minded and the curious. I thought details of field and topic and method were important but not prohibitive.

I was underestimating the degree of specialisation of doctoral research.

Academia is a hyper-specialised place, where people spend years creating their niche in a field. And once they have done so, they will prefer to supervise PhDs who want to do similar work to what they are doing, which makes sense from the angle of capability as well as convenience…oh, and I hadn’t yet mentioned ego matters: people get attached to their way of doing things and supervision may be a pain, a real pain, when your and their views, on something like methodology clash.

‘That’s rather pointing out the obvious,’ my client said, ‘but very helpful to look at it that way.’

Yes, it is. People do well when an actual mentor relationship can be established, and this isn’t as obvious as it may seem! But having research interests and approaches aligned  is a promising start.

Before you embark on a PhD: read your prospective supervisor’s work. This is one of the best ways to get a feel of whether you would be a good match in terms of content. The same still applies when you are already working on your PhD. The better you understand your supervisor’s work, the easier supervision will likely be, as you’ll understand where he or she is coming from. (This is good advice for thesis defences too: read or at least scan the work of the people on your committee: you’ll find valuable hints as to questions.)

If you’re like me and you’re stubborn and want to do things your way, that’s also a possibility, but make sure you find someone to supervise you who will be open to that more creative approach to avoid setting yourself up for having an even more difficult time than you probably will have. And be prepared, because you will be on your own. You can do it, of course you can do it, but it has its drawbacks, and you will only to a far lesser degree be able to learn from your supervisor.

Another idea is to talk to a person’s current PhDs. Does this particular supervisor invest time and energy in his PhDs? It may be a delicate question, but it’s an important one, and answers whether positive or negative or mixed, will be invaluable in making up your mind on deciding which supervisor to work with.

Did you choose your supervisor/ department wisely? If so, you have my admiration. There is a week on supervision in the HappyPhD course which will help with choosing a supervisor, and aims to ease supervision trouble if you’re struggling. It’s not at all uncommon. If you found this post of help, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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