How to choose the right research supervisor

How to choose the right research supervisor

A PhD student gives her advice to those who may be seeking a project supervisor. 

Welcome back to UCL! With the new term starting, the time is approaching for some of you, be you final year undergrads or postgrads, to think about choosing a supervisor, as well as a topic for your research project. But with roughly 2,500 researchers spread across 11 different faculties, this choice can be difficult. To make this process easier for you, I have summarised, below, my top tips to lighten the burden when making these important decisions.


Make a short-list

Where to even start? For most programmes, there is a list of suggested projects already drawn up and just waiting for students to pick from. Here, the focus mainly lies with the projects themselves, so it is worth reading through all of them and deciding which 2-3 projects you like the sound of the most. If you are not blown away immediately by what is on offer, check whether you can contact supervisors of interest directly and come up with a project between the two of you. If that is allowed through your course, the world (or at least UCL) is your oyster: check out Iris, which has the details of all of the researchers working at, or associated with, UCL. You can use this approach to read the research summaries of the academics you are interested in according to your own interests.


Do your research

A good way to get to know your supervisor’s research in more detail is to have a look at their most recent publications. Research summaries of supervisors can be very broad, which leaves out the specific details as to how exactly they approach their broader aims. On the other hand, recent publications will give you a good insight into the methods currently used in their group. If you don’t have the time to read through all of these, focus on finding a recent review your supervisor or a member of the group wrote. This will give you a clear insight into the area of research and will also inform you of your supervisor’s take on some of the theories in the field. This will make excellent reading before meeting a supervisor, as reviews are written for researchers with little prior knowledge, aiming to provide you with a succinct summary.


Face-to-face meeting

Probably the best way of determining whether you could get along with a potential supervisor is meeting them face-to-face.This will give you a better idea on a number of things. Firstly, you will get to hear more about the potential research project.This will most likely be more detailed than the description you were given and will give you an insight into the research methods used, the exact timeline for the project, as well as the supervisor’s expectations. Also, if there are any special circumstances surrounding your ability to do the project (such as work requirements or planned holidays), this would be your chance to discuss them.

Maybe even more important than the project itself, this meeting will give you a chance to get to know your supervisor personally. During a project you will work closely with them, and so it is important to figure out whether you are comfortable with their personality for a prolonged period of time. Particularly important is to figure out their work rhythm: do they expect you to work their working hours? Are they available at any time for a meeting or should this be arranged beforehand? Will they be in the office every day of your project or are you expected to work on your own? All of these questions deserve to be considered by you, and just as important as your supervisor’s answers are your own to these questions. Depending on whether you have previous experience working in a research group, you may already have a good idea of your preferred working style and the level of supervision needed.


Meet group members

After a long informative meeting with your potential supervisor, most students are too distracted with their own thoughts to pay attention to the last part of every good initial discussion: meeting the group members. If the supervisor does not offer this, ask whether it would be possible.These researchers, post docs and other postgraduate students, can give you a more honest indication of what it is like to work in this group than maybe your supervisor can.Whilst they will probably not tell you about any drama, try to read between the lines. Lastly, it is also very important to meet the members of the lab when your supervisor tends to work from home; these will be the people you will have to turn to with everyday basic questions during your project, and will support your personal development and training when your supervisor isn’t around. Another good way to figure out the social dynamics of any group is getting a commentary from your friends. Find out amongst your friends and acquaintances whether anybody has ever worked with your supervisor of choice. Similar to current group members, this will give you a better idea of how the supervisor treats members of the research group and whether there are any other skeletons hiding in the closet.


Be flexible

Even once you have settled on a supervisor, it may be that they cannot take you on after all, due to extenuating circumstances. If that is the case, don’t despair. Despite the fact that these researches could seem intimidating to you, most of them are very nice people, willing to help as much as possible. One possibility would be to ask for suggestions regarding another potential supervisor. Your supervisor of choice will know your interests (that is why you chose them in the first place) and will direct you to their applicable colleagues. However, if you are desperate to work with your selected supervisor, it may be possible to be primarily supervised by someone else but via a collaboration. With longer projects, this becomes more and more feasible. For just a few months, it may be a pipe dream, but if you are in a research group for a prolonged period, your ideas could carry more weight.


Trial period

This is predominantly important if you really cannot make up your mind, have some spare time and the project lasts for an extended period of time. The longer your project is, the more vital it is to end up in a group you can flourish in. If you have difficulty deciding between several groups or just aren’t sure whether your chosen group is really the place for you, it could be worth asking whether you could shadow your supervisor or a member of the group for a day or two.This will give you an immediate idea of what a day in the group will look like and whether it is the place for you.You may not be able to get a deep insight into your own potential project, but it could give you an idea of the environment you are about to join.


Overall, finding a good research group to conduct your project in can be daunting, but it is definitely not impossible. The better you know yourself, your own research interests and preferred way of working, the easier it will be to find what you are looking for. Also, no supervisor is perfect! Annoying habits and strange behaviours are a fact of life, so my final advice would be to find a supervisor with whose quirks you can live with. Looking for perfection will only mean you will run into disappointment.

This article was originally published in Issue 721 of Pi Magazine

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