Imagine entering a position where you will be working closely with someone for one to four years or more. This person may take on various roles (e.g., mentor, adviser, editor, boss) but their primary task is to provide the means for you to advance in your field of research. This is the role of supervisor.
Part of the journey of choosing the “right” supervisor for yourself is to be self-aware. This means being familiar with your work ethics and habits, behaviour in team projects, as well as your goals during and after graduate school. This understanding will help you find a research team and supervisor who is closely aligned with your research ambitions, personal interests, and idiosyncrasies.
So where do you start when trying to find the right supervisor? Iyoma Yvonne Edache, pursuing her master’s in exercise science explains her approach:
“In my experience, when you’re searching for a supervisor you have to do your homework. Prior to approaching any professors, I suggest that you look them up online, read up on their area of research and find any of their recently published literature. With this information, you can begin to contact potential supervisors. Discuss with them about your plans to apply to grad school and your interest in their field of research. Even if the professor you approach is unable to supervise you for your graduate studies, they can often recommend other professors who are in a similar research field.”
Extending Iyoma’s experience, we offer some suggestions on how to carve your research niche and approaching potential supervisor(s):
Connect with potential supervisors
Speak to faculty members you know (e.g., your classes, conferences, positive experiences from friends). The familiarity, whether professional or personal, helps create a genuine discussion of around your curiosity in research. Extend your engagement with faculty members you do not know or who may not be at the same location as you, through phone or video calling.
Some professors may want to see evidence of your research inclination, so have a scanned copy of your most recent university transcript, summary of research interests, and CV on hand. Professors with an active research program welcome the initiative of prospective students. You are not wasting their time or imposing by contacting them. If professors do not respond in a few weeks, try again and also be considerate that their lack of response may be due to their schedule or inability to take students at the current time.
Be clear in all of your conversations with potential supervisors about your interest in their work, your comfort in the team dynamic, and your desire to start a graduate program. Your intuition may be useful in deciding the personal fit and working styles.
Try to gain as much knowledge about the current topics the professor is working on. Information may be readily available on the university website, personal/research website, published articles/books/op ed pieces, conference presentations etc. This information provides useful detail and fodder for questions when you discuss further.
Physically go and see the potential supervisor and their research team. Talk to current graduate students in the program, get to know the cultural and physical geography of your potential new home. As important as the fit is with the supervisor, graduate program and fellow students, it is also important that you find joy and new adventures in the lived space.
If you are not able to visit the campus, make it a point that you are interested and would like to speak to the professor on the phone or video call. Ask for permission and contact information of current graduate students to learn about their experiences in the department and working with the faculty member. Sometimes, professors also would like to speak to prospective students for the same reasons, to gauge fit and level of knowledge.
Take stock of your options and weigh the research, professional and personal factors. You can only say “yes” to one program. Do not feel bad for saying “no” to others. The key is to thank those involved for their time, resources and commitment to giving you the chance to know them. This is the start of your network and you may cross paths in the future.
These steps are only a guide and buttressed by the experiences of graduate students. Finding the right supervisor is an individual process. Sherif Goubran, working on his doctorate degree (Individualized program) encourages prospective students to ask and consider these questions:
“Finding the right supervisors is not an easy task. Based on my own experience, I learned that the process is in fact very individualized, it depends on your personal/preferred work style, academic and professional experiences, motive for pursuing graduate studies, future career goals, and most importantly how you perceive and value knowledge (on a philosophical level). Here are a few questions from which I gained insight to choosing my supervisor:
- What is expected from me during my studies?
- How do you (potential supervisor) see my previous experiences helping me in my program?
- Would you be open to me changing my research directions/focus during my program?
- What do you think is needed to achieve my career goals?
- What do you think would constitute an innovation/breakthrough in your field of research?”
Sherif ends on some wise words, “No one can tell you if you will work better with a supervisor who is more flexible or strict, focused or more explorative, a renowned or new scholar. It is only you who can know, follow your own intuition.”