Choosing Your Ideal Supervisors

What would your ideal supervisor be like?

Would they give you lots of support, or lots of space? Would they provide direction, or let you set your own agenda? Would your meetings be very formal, with note-taking and goals, or would you just talk for as long as the conversation was fruitful?

The dynamics between a student and their supervisor/s are incredibly unique because the personalities of the people involved are unique. No two supervisory relationships are the same. There are, however, successful and unsuccessful supervisions. Picking the right supervisors is possibly the single most important thing you can do to give yourself the best chance of a good experience.

When shopping around for supervisors, the most obvious factor to consider is their expertise in relation to your proposed thesis topic. Naturally, you want supervisors who can help you with your subject matter. But that’s only one factor among many you should think about. You also need to make sure that there is balance on your supervision team. It’s no good having three supervisors who are experts in your field, but none who understand your methodology.

Ideally, among your 1-3 supervisors, you should have:

  • someone who understands your subject
  • someone who understands your methodology
  • someone from each relevant discipline, if your research is interdisciplinary

You also need to make sure that you all work well together. Do you all share the same research ‘values’ and general work ethic? If you’re a planner but your potential supervisor works on a last-minute basis, or vice-versa, you may run into problems. Similarly, if you disagree on matters of epistemology, it’s probably not a good fit.

It’s hard to tell any of this if you’re looking around for potential supervisors online. But once you’ve found some serious candidates, it helps to go for a coffee (or a ‘virtual coffee’ via Skype) to assess your compatibility.

This might feel a little bit like a job interview – and it kind of is. You’re interviewing them for the ‘job’ of supervisor, and they’re interviewing you for the ‘job’ of supervisee. Just like in a job interview, you need to know that the potential supervisor is qualified for the job. That’s the subject matter expertise. But you also need to know that they will be a good fit for your organisation. Do their strengths (and weaknesses) complement those of their potential co-supervisor/s, or do they compete? Does their work philosophy gel with yours?

It’s probably unrealistic to expect to find supervisors who perfectly complement each other, and who perfectly match your values and preferences. However, once you’ve found the best available fit, you can start making allowances for any differences in the way you each like to work. Talk openly about what you expect in terms of meetings, reviewing written work, conducting experiments or analyses, and sharing ideas. Put your thoughts down on paper, using a supervision agreement form if you like (there’s one available in the “AUT Resources” page here on Thesislink).

Ideally, do this with all your supervisors together (if you have more than one). Each supervisor needs to work well with the others, as well as with you.

All of this groundwork doesn’t mean you’ll never have any hiccups in your supervision (I’ve never heard of a postgrad research project that didn’t). But it does improve your chances of having a generally harmonious working relationship, and of staying friends with your supervisors after you graduate. Maybe not “karaoke at 2am” kind of friends, but “gives a glowing reference for my postdoc application” kind of friends.

Or who knows: maybe both.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

2 thoughts on “Choosing Your Ideal Supervisors

  1. Thanks Anise, good advice. And when you have selected your almost perfect match, toss the infantile pro-forma supervision agreement aside, and plan like proper grown-ups on how the relationship is going to work? When it all goes bung, who keeps the cat?

    1. Absolutely agree with Kate about the pro-forma – useful for some technical/admin stuff maybe but the discussion around it is the point. I also think that the supervisor should be able to be a “kind challenger”. If you agree with the supervisor on everything its probably best to get a different one – you need someone to help prepare you for the examination.

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