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!