How to pick your PhD Supervisor


Deciding to do a PhD is a whole process. Doing the PhD itself is an even more arduous, and often longer process. For a significant number of years (in my case 4) you are going to be stuck with whoever you decide to have as a supervisor. I don’t know about you, but that’s one hell of a commitment to a person.

Normally when we talk about long, one-person-to-another, type of commitments, we are talking about relationships. Dating, love, marriage, candle-lit dinners… Not meetings in offices about how to code a certain variable. But hey, if you’re going to be with someone for a certain number of years, you’re going to have to make sure you are a good fit. I have recommended before that you need a list of criteria before you start dating. This is to weed out the majority and to get to “the right person for you” quicker. I’m pretty sure that this works for PhD supervisors too. So, it’s time to dive into what would make a supervisor a good fit for you!

First question to ask yourself: What do you need from a supervisor? If you are worlds’ best writer, but a terrible data analyst, you need a supervisor who knows data analytics quite well. If you are an economist diving into behavioural economics, or behavioural science even, you need a supervisor who knows those fields, and who knows how to do research and publish in those fields. What you lack, you need to find somewhere else. And finding it in your supervisor and learning from them as you both go along, doesn’t seem like the worst plan. So, the type of knowledge you need, needs to be present in your supervisor. Taking a supervisor from outside your own field if your PhD is interdisciplinary is often encouraged. In that case, having more than one supervisor is most definitely encouraged. With two supervisors, you can make up for twice the lack in your own knowledge. Steep learning curve up ahead!

Another thing to weigh up: prestige. Does that matter to you? There are VIPs in every sector and they come with their perks: lots of funding, access to big data, access to companies, invitations to conferences you can tailgate on. Worst case scenario, you can ride on that halo-effect: if you work with someone prestigious, you must be prestigious too. Or at least worthy enough of their time. But here things become a bit less great: time. How busy do you think someone that prestigious is? They didn’t get there by sitting on their ass. And if they are famous enough, they might be doing a lot of side-gigs. Think of radio shows, writing their own book(s), podcasts, invitations to speak at conferences and other events, non-academic for-profit deals etc. That stuff is going to reduce the time they have for you, a mere PhD student, whether they want it to or not. So, if prestige matters to you, you need be able to work quite independently, because often, there’ll be no time for a 3-hour session on why your code broke down, or how something needs to be rewritten.


And that’s the ultimate crux when it comes to a PhD: how (in)dependent are you? Lots of people initially struggle with the lack of structure a PhD has, but picking the right supervisor can do a lot towards reducing that struggle. If they prefer to talk through each and every idea, are closely involved in the execution, and set weekly meetings as a minimum, you just got yourself one hell of a structure, without having to plan much yourself. Some supervisors might even set weekly deadlines for things that need to be done by then, to discuss them, see what worked (or didn’t) and move on. Others don’t want to look over your shoulder all the time, and might not even be around for weekly meetings. That doesn’t mean they aren’t involved though; they just tend to work on a “call for help” basis. If you reach out to them stating your issue, they’ll make time to have a meeting, via Skype or any other means. These types of supervisors do tend to work much better with really independent students, because they first try themselves and only call when help is really needed. With this type of supervision, you can take it at your own pace, however, you’ll need to have the balls to reach out. And that seems to be a struggle for PhDs of all ages. In all fairness, even if you didn’t immediately pick “the right” supervisor, you can work towards a happy middle ground. You can tell your supervisor(s) what you need from them, how you prefer to work and how strong a hold you need them to have over your work.


Another thing I have noticed is the difference that a culture can make when it comes to communication. I’m Dutch: we say it like it is. So, if I had spent an entire week on an idea, had fully worked it out and my supervisor told me it was shit, I’d be slightly taken aback, but not offended: on to the next one really. Anyone who is used to the Dutch wouldn’t be very offended. But if you’re not used to that, you’d be either seeing red with anger, or in tears. This works the other way as well. If someone doesn’t directly tell me one of my ideas is terrible, I’m just going to keep at it. I’m not saying you need someone from your (or a similar) culture, but keep it in mind. The British tend to say things are "fine, interesting or just need a bit more work." That bit more work is a WHOLE load of more work, and interesting (or different) just tends to mean it’s bad. Another favourite is: it’s good, but… Yeah just means it’s shit. Needs a total overhaul. Have fun!

And now last but not least, actually the most important quality in a supervisor: they need to believe in your work. If your work is not of value to them, you will notice it. They won’t give you nearly as much attention or other resources as they might give to someone who’s work they do believe in, or work that is of direct interest to them. Academics are busy, they just are. So, what they lack in time, they need to make up for in the ordering of their priorities. You’ve got to make sure your work is on their priority list. So, picking a supervisor who has a great name won’t help you much if your work is totally outside their expertise, scope, but most importantly: outside of their interest. If they don’t care, you will suffer.


Overall, what I described above is the strategy I used. I like my two supervisors, although I have screamed at them already. But that might be inevitable. As great as supervisors can be, keep in mind that they are people too. They also have good days and bad days, obligations they don’t want to fulfill and things they really want to do, but can hardly seem to make time available for. Unsurprisingly, they are just like us. So be patient, be reasonable and only scream at them when you deem it truly necessary.

If you have any questions about the process of picking a PhD supervisor, just ask me! Send me an e-mail, or just tweet 😊

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