Advice on Selecting a Prospective Thesis Supervisor

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Although this blog is primarily aimed at technical communications – I am open to posting advice on other academic topics of relevance to university and college students. Today’s post comes at the request of one of our readers – who asked:

“I was hoping that you could do a post/ advise on what prospective students (Masters, PhD, etc) should consider before picking a supervisor. I was fortunate to have fantastic supervisors during my undergrad years (really more luck than anything I did actually!) but I’d rather not just rely on luck for my master’s year.”

When I did my own graduate degrees I actually had no idea how to choose a thesis supervisor, mine was essentially assigned at the Masters level, and I had the great good-fortune to hit the jackpot.  My Masters supervisor was so fantastic that I stayed on to do a PhD with him and it was one the best experiences of my life.  It would be great if everyone could be as lucky as me in finding such a terrific thesis supervisor – but the truth is, if you leave it to chance, it’s equally likely to be disastrous.  Finishing a graduate degree, especially a PhD, takes an astounding amount of effort – both mentally and emotionally – and you owe it to yourself to select a supervisor carefully.  In my opinion – this decision should be based on three key factors: field of study, availability, and personality.    


Field of Study

If you’re a biologist, you’re clearly not going to choose an electrical engineering professor as your thesis supervisor, but beyond general area, just how important is the field of study to your choice?  Not a lot I’d say, especially for Masters students, unless you have a very specific research topic in mind.  For example, if you are a civil engineer that wants to do a PhD on river ice jams – then you should be searching out professors who study that topic.  In North America there are only about a half a dozen professors that do this; worldwide probably only a couple of dozen – so you’d have to choose from that shortlist.  However, if you are a civil engineer looking to do a Masters in hydrology – but you don’t know much beyond that about specific topics of study – then there are literally hundreds of choices open to you in North American alone – thousands worldwide.  So – if you have a very specific research interest – then your first step is to find out who does research on that specific topic to develop a shortlist of potential supervisors.  If you can be open to a wide variety of possibilities – especially at the Masters level – you will have many more options open to you.  



Most students mistakenly think that the most important factor in selecting a thesis supervisor is ‘fame’.  They picture having papers co-authored with a renowned academic as the key to their own academic success. The truth is, most of the people who are ‘famous’ in a particular area already have 10 or 20 graduate students (or more).  They are essentially the CEO of a research ‘empire’ in which there are intermediate layers of research associates, post-docs and/or senior grad students  – your opportunities to spend time with this person will be minimal or non-existent. This person is seldom actually in their office – they’re more likely to be in an airport or on a plane.  Chances are, they spend more of their time writing proposals and giving invited talks, than actually doing research anymore. In my opinion – this is the last person you should want as your thesis supervisor.  Sure, papers co-authored with this person will look good on your resume; however, there will be dozens (if not hundreds) of others who will have similar resumes – so just how special is it?

 One of the best parts of continuing on to a higher degree is the opportunity to learn from and be mentored by a professor ‘one-on-one’ – something that’s seldom practical at the undergraduate level.  In the best graduate student-supervisor relationships, student and professor work in close partnership, sharing an interest in an exciting research topic. Thus, in my opinion, one of the most important things to look for in a prospective supervisor is someone who has time for you.  In that context – a better prospect is someone young who is ‘going to’ be famous, not someone who already is famous.



Superb research requires the frank exchange of ideas in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Student and professor must be able to communicate freely and comfortably for this to happen, and you simply cannot do this with someone you don’t get along with. Of course, it’s hard to know if you are going to get along with someone you have never even met; however, this knowledge can be achieved in a variety of ways.  If you’re looking to do a Masters and don’t have a very specific topic in mind, consider doing your Masters right at the university where you did your undergrad degree.  After all, your interest in graduate studies is likely due in part to a particularly positive experience with a particular professor and course – why not consider this person?  Of course there is always the question of moving universities between degrees – this used to be considered essential – however, not so much anymore.  With global communications and information resources available just a mouse-click away – this is not the same necessity it was in decades past.  The single most important aspect of any graduate degree is to get the most out of it educationally.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing an undergraduate degree and Masters at the same university if you’re doing it with a person who is committed to mentoring and teaching you. 

It’s possible that, for the PhD, you might want to move to a different university – especially if you are in a relatively small one at present. In this case, I suggest you talk to that favorite professor – or your current (Masters) thesis supervisor and ask them for suggestions.  Probably, if they like the person – you will, too.   If you are currently at a big research-based university and have a good relationship with your Masters supervisor – I would at least think about staying with them for the PhD.  Perhaps ask about having two-co-supervisors if you want to broaden scope – most professors work collaboratively and given the complexity of topics and the level of specialization prevalent – many professors opt to co-supervise PhDs anyway. It creates a unique hybrid type of expertise in the student that is highly marketable.  (This is because the biggest hurdle you face as a freshly graduated PhD is proving you are not just a clone of your PhD supervisor.)


The most successful graduate student – thesis supervisor relationships last far beyond the day the student graduates – evolving into long-term friendships and research partnerships. Therefore, when making your choice – be sure to think about availability and personality – not just field of study. 

Good luck – I hope this info is useful to you.  Thanks to Ling for suggesting the topic. As always, comments are welcome!

16 thoughts on “Advice on Selecting a Prospective Thesis Supervisor

    Marialuisa Aliotta said:
    September 9, 2013 at 3:30 am

    Excellent advice as always, Faye! And brilliantly said. I think this is a very timely post, at least here in the UK where the new academic year is just starting for most universities and new PhD students will be looking for the right supervisors for them. On this issues, and along very similar lines, I also published a post some time ago, which can be found here for those interested:

    Keep up the excellent work and good luck to all new PhD students!

      Faye Hicks responded:
      September 18, 2013 at 2:13 pm

      Thanks Marialuisa for such kind comments. Thanks too for the link to your post on the topic – I really enjoyed it. It’s great to have a link to it here.

    ling said:
    September 9, 2013 at 4:06 am

    Hello Prof Hicks,

    Thank you so much for writing this up!🙂 I’ll definitely keep these pointers in mind when I pick my supervisor🙂

      Faye Hicks responded:
      September 18, 2013 at 2:13 pm

      Thanks Ling – glad you found it helpful!🙂

    Muradul Islam said:
    September 11, 2013 at 3:15 am

    This is another good post. Thank you.

    Jo said:
    September 29, 2013 at 7:57 am

    Dr. Hicks,
    I am a Doctoral student myself and I enjoyed reading your blog. In fact, it is phenomenal and I can learn a few tips from your blog for my dissertation🙂.
    I was wondering if you have written a post on ‘How to write an effective Scientific Write-Up or Research Proposal for a prospective Doctoral student’?

      Faye Hicks responded:
      October 5, 2013 at 8:42 am

      Thanks Jo for the nice comments! And thanks, too, for the topic suggestion. That’s a great idea – I will give it some thought and see if I can come up with some useful advice on that sometime soon.

    Roselind said:
    October 2, 2013 at 6:41 am

    I find your blog very helpful and informative. I have been wanting to start my PhD for quite some time now, but every time I start reading the literature I find myself being pulled in every direction and end up not able to find a clear focus. I am interested to do something on language and identity but am still undecided what exactly to study. Would really appreciate your advice.

      Faye Hicks responded:
      October 5, 2013 at 8:50 am

      Hi Roselind – I felt exactly the same way when I was thinking of doing my PhD – so I talked to some of my MSc professors and asked for advice. It helped me a lot. In the end I really couldn’t decide on a specific topic, so instead I chose a particular supervisor that I really wanted to work with (the same one I had for my MSc, in fact) and I let him choose the PhD topic. It worked out really well for me because any project with this person would have been fun – it was the professor that mattered not the specific topic. Since finishing my PhD I have changed research focus a couple of times and really didn’t end up doing things very much like my PhD. I realized it wasn’t so much about ‘what’ research I did – it was all about learning ‘how’ to do research – and having fun doing it.
      This may not apply to you – but hopefully it gives you another perspective on the problem. Good luck!

        Roselind Wan said:
        October 7, 2013 at 1:48 am

        Dear Prof Hicks,
        I really appreciate your reply–and I would give you a hug if you were here in front of me🙂
        Your advice is absolutely reassuring as I thought I was not making any sense, and with no clear direction at all as to how to move forward. God Bless you.

    click here said:
    January 25, 2014 at 9:58 am

    Hello There. I discovered your blog using
    msn. This is an extremely neatly written article.
    I will be sure to bookmark it and return to learn more of your helpful information.

    Thanks for the post. I will certainly comeback.

    John said:
    January 26, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    Great article Faye, you pointed out a lot of important aspects in such an easy manner.

      Faye Hicks responded:
      January 27, 2016 at 10:00 am

      Thanks John – I’m so glad you found it useful!

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