Choosing a PhD supervisor is one of the most important decisions you must make before you start grad school. A bad one can turn three or four years of your life into a nightmare, while a good one will make the experience bearable, if not enjoyable (at times).
I often get asked for advice on how to approach this decision. Today I’ll share what I did and what factors mattered to me most. However, bear in mind that everyone has different needs and deal-breakers, so please don’t blindly apply all my advice!
I started looking for a supervisor quite early, over half a year before beginning my PhD. One day I just opened the website of the Department of Mathematics at Imperial College and found the list of all researchers. I looked at them one by one, noting down names of those with research interests matching mine.
I emailed my “candidates” asking if they’d consider supervising me for the next three years. I got tentatively positive responses from a few of them, so we set up meetings, in person or on skype (I didn’t live in London then). At this point I already got two important pieces of information: how promptly they respond to emails (you don’t want to keep chasing your supervisor for weeks) and if they’re reasonably flexible when it comes to meeting arrangements (skype meetings are life-savers when you get sick, have to travel or just prefer to work from home).
During the meetings I paid attention to a few things. First, if they had some project ideas, which was especially important to me as I was entering a new field of mathematics without much previous knowledge. Second, how often they met with their PhD students, because I wanted the supervision to exist not only on paper. Finally, I cared a lot about their personality, to make sure we could establish a good relationship.
I took all these factors into account when I made my final decision. Of course, it takes two to tango, so my “candidates” also considered if they’d like me as a PhD student.
It worked! Today I know that I chose the best supervisor I possibly could. Someone who has enough time for me, who reads my emails and who really cares about my research and me as a person. We’ve established a great relationship, both academic and personal. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s a great role model for women in STEM, who shows that one can have a successful academic career and a happy family life.
If you’re facing such a decision now, I’d suggest writing down your idea of a perfect supervisor. This will help you identify your needs and factors you don’t want to compromise on. Remember that you and your supervisor are going to form a team for a few years, so make sure you’re both happy with your choices.
It’s worth putting some effort into choosing a PhD supervisor. Trust me, it’ll pay off!