How to find a supervisor for your PhD

Many people would say that the first, and most important decision you need to make about your PhD is who you want to supervise it. First and foremost, they’ll be the first person who reads your work and guides its development. Your supervisor’s interests and priorities will therefore influence your research from the ground up. Further, a PhD is not just about theoretical research; it’s also an apprenticeship into a professional community. It’s therefore important to network and create contacts during your PhD study, and your supervisor will be the best person to make introductions and give you tips about where to be going and who to be speaking to. Your supervisor can give you teaching opportunities, part-time research work, and introductions to other people who can help your research and your career. All of this make them a very important figure in your life for the time you’re doing your PhD.

Also, because you’ll be carrying out independent research, you won’t automatically have a group of people around you working in similar areas, and with whom you can discuss ideas and problems. In the absence of such a community, your supervisor is a very important sounding board for your thinking. Your supervisor will also often be the person you turn to for pastoral support, especially in the early days of your PhD, and especially if you’ve moved somewhere new to do it.

If your PhD has developed out of research you carried out for your masters, it usually makes the most sense to continue working with the supervisor of your masters. You know each other already, and have a track record of successful and (presumably) satisfactory experience of working together. You’re familiar with each other’s ideas, and will be able to use the momentum from your masters to carry you through the first phases of the PhD.

This doesn’t mean you have to work with your masters supervisor if your PhD is on a related topic. Masters students usually have less say over who they get as their supervisors for their dissertations, and you may have gotten a relatively junior member of faculty, or someone whose area of expertise isn’t in quite the right area. In such cases, it can make sense to approach someone more senior, or whose research interests coincide more closely with your own. You can stay in the same department, or look for new universities. Staying in the same department presents a range of benefits. You’ll know the place, so you’ll need to spend less time and energy working out how they do things and who’s who. You’ll also have established a bit of a social circle, which can be of great help when you’re engaged in as solitary a pursuit as a PhD often is. Also, as the faculty in the department already know you, your application is likely to be more straightforward. This can be a huge help when you’re trying to sort out visas and other documentation.

But none of these should be taken as the most important consideration. As I said at the beginning of this chapter, your supervisor is likely to be the single most significant influence on your experience of doing your PhD, so you should probably decide who you most want to supervise your research, and go where they are. The people whose research has most influenced your own would be good candidates, and the work you’re most interested in. Who’s doing work that you really want to learn more about, and have the opportunity to discuss?

You could also take into consideration the existence of research groups. Universities often set up research groups focused on a specific topic (like risk, or the environment, or discourse). These will usually give rise to a strong research community, with formal events that will be of interest to your research – talks, conferences, seminars, etc. The presence of such a research group can mean that a number of the leading figures in your area are together in one place, which can be a great benefit to the development of your ideas. If one of the people you’d consider an ideal supervisor is also located there, so much the better. If not, you’ll need to weigh up which is more important to you: the direct input of the specific supervisor, or the more diffuse availability of a larger pool of talent. I’d be inclined to go for the former. You can attend conferences and seminars, and email people to get their ideas and responses. But your PhD is an almost unique opportunity to get regular contact with a leading scholar who’s reading your work with close attention, and devoting time to help you develop it.

There are many other things people base their decisions on – like the city they want to live in, or the university they want to study at. And these are perfectly plausible reasons, if they’re higher priorities than the research itself. Indeed, it’s not a situation of either/or: either the supervisor you want, or the city you actually want to live in. You can start by making a list of potential supervisors, and looking at where they’re based (or whichever other factors are important to you), and then working out which is going to work best for you. In such instances, being clear about your own priorities is the most helpful first step.

Once you’ve worked out who you want to supervise your research, a good first step is to get in touch with them, via email, with some detail about what you want to study, and enquiring as to whether they’d be interested in supervising the topic. Try to look professional. You need to know, with some clarity, what topic you want to explore, and how you intend to explore it. You need to be able to demonstrate that you’re familiar with the other work in the area, and have an idea how you can make a new contribution to it. And the connection of your research to your potential supervisor’s research interests should be clear. Most UK academics state, on their departmental webpage, what topics they’re interested in supervising, so be sure to check this out before firing off an email. Be sure to use the person’s title when you email: ‘Prof. Wang’, ‘Dr Priellle’, etc.

It’s absolutely fine to contact more than one academic. If you do contact several people, be sure to contact those you decide not to work with to explain why, and to thank them for their time – they might end up examining your thesis, so you want to stay on good terms! Also, if you contact more than one person in the same department, it can be worth mentioning this in your emails to these people, suggesting that they might be interested in supervising the thesis in partnership, or something like that:

… I have also sent an enquiry to Prof. David Jones asking him if he would be willing to supervise the project. If you find the topic of potential interest, you may want to discuss with him the possibility of supervising it jointly.
This will help ensure that people don’t feel slighted. It might also, ideally, get people in the department to start talking about your research, which will make your application easier, and generate some interest around it before you begin. This kind of thing demonstrates that you have an appreciation of the fact that you’re becoming part of a research community, which is also likely to be of help in your development.
Once you’ve got someone to agree to supervise your work, you can begin the process of applying to the university formally, and looking for funding, if relevant.
If no one is willing to supervise your work, your ideas will need to be developed. In such instances, we can help. Contact for further information about what we can in this regard.

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