Your supervisor will become the second most important driving force of your project for the next few years. On occasion he or she will become THE driving force when motivation slumps or your confidence fails you. With this in mind, choose wisely now. The best supervisor is not always the most famous person in your field. I would argue that is one of the most important pieces of information I wish I had known and understood sooner in the application process. When researching the big names in your field and trying to find a potential supervisor, consider the following criteria:
- Does s/he have enough time to manage you in addition to their current workload?
If your potential supervisor spends half their year travelling across the world on book tours or lecturing, then they may not be the ideal PhD supervisor for you. It is best to (politely) ask them how they see your supervisions fitting into their work schedule and evaluating their response based on your own supervision needs.
- Do you have a great rapport?
You do not need to be ‘besties’ but you do need to get on with her/him like you would any other colleague because your supervisor will be your main point of contact for the entire PhD. Yes, you can skirt around this by contacting your secondary supervisor (you usually have a supervisory team), but it is not the ‘done thing’ and is not likely to be an enjoyable route.
- Does s/he give you detailed feedback you understand and in a timely manner?
I gave my draft PhD proposal to several potential supervisors. Some gave me very limited feedback. Some gave me feedback after the application deadline. Some gave me detailed feedback. One gave me detailed feedback accompanied by an email which invited further edits and offered to explain any sticking points in greater depth. Submitting a draft proposal can be a great way to check that your potential supervisor will deliver on any promises they make in conversation.
- Is s/he known in the field you wish to enter?
Applications are often judged in part on the fit between you, the university and your supervisor. If your potential supervisor doesn’t have a strong connection to your research area (eg if you want to write about George Eliot and Nature and they are a Victorianist but have never worked/written on Eliot or Nature) then your application may not be weighted as highly by the panel. However, when you contact your potential supervisor s/he should make you aware of this ahead of time and point you in another direction.
It is important to understand that I tell you these things to support your decision-making process, not as a ‘test’ of your potential supervisor. It may be that they are busy marking or preparing to teach a new module at the time you initially contact them, something which wouldn’t be an issue down the line but may skew your initial interaction. The key thing to keep in mind is that you feel you can communicate clearly with her/him. Always be polite and respectful in your communications as these potential supervisors are all squeezing you into their busy schedules on the gamble that you may or may not choose to pursue your application there. At the end of the day, you need her/him and these academics are helping you in their own time.
A very brief note on institutions and research centres. While the resources and kudos associated with certain universities are an enormous pull and undoubtedly require significant consideration, it is far more important to choose the right supervisor. If torn between two universities, I would rank the following in order of most to least important:
- Is the supervisor a good fit for me and my project?
- Is the institution likely to offer me funding?
- Does the institution offer additional support in the form of Doctoral Academy training events (like events advising how to write better, how to get published etcetera)?
- Does the university have a research centre related to my field through which I could organise events to boost my academic CV?
- What resources and kudos do the university hold?
I chose my institution almost exclusively because of the individual I am now working with and the funding I was offered. It was the best decision I ever made.