How NOT to Choose Your PhD Supervisor

Michele Mei

Michele Mei
Nov 5, 2018 12:00:00 PM

Pursuing a PhD is undoubtedly one of the most challenging chapters in a researcher's career. For the first time, as an early career scientist, you must juggle research, writing, teaching, and your own personal life (yes, you should still have one). A PhD is definitely exhausting, but given the right guidance and support it can be an enjoyable and exciting time too. 

Choosing the right supervisor is critical. After working in research labs for years, I know first-hand how a supervisor can severely impact lab outlook and productivity. During my freshman year, my supervisor was friendly, hands-on, and approachable which inspired, motivated, and made for a healthy work environment. On the other hand, my most recent supervisor was more concerned about impact factors and lab recognition than the actual science, which not only stressed his students, but also made him unavailable as a support system (even though he was in his office every day).

Stories of bad supervisors are a dime a dozen (just look online or ask your lovely, local PhD students). There are plenty of articles on how to choose the right PhD supervisor, but how can you avoid a bad one? Before committing to a graduate program, consider these tips and warning-signs.Here’s how NOT to choose your PhD supervisor.

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Don’t choose a supervisor just because they are well-known.

When searching for a PhD supervisor, it’s tempting to seek mentorship from prominent scientists in the field. At first, it makes sense. A distinguished and successful scientist should have a deep reservoir of insight and wisdom, right? And under their mentorship, you might have a successful science career too.

It’s idealistic, but it’s certainly not a guarantee. In fact, a well-known scientist might not have enough time for their students. Between their own research, conferences, and collaborations, they probably have their plate full. This can translate to a lack of attentiveness and communication, which is undesirable in any mentor.

During your PhD it is especially important to communicate regularly with your supervisor. Something as simple as an open door policy or the ability to meet with them on any given day can be immeasurably valuable. For example, in your first two years of study, you will encounter roadblocks that might take days or weeks to solve on your own, but a quick trip to your supervisor’s office might reduce that to a few hours. Simply having regular discussions with your supervisor will give you valuable insight and direction.

Don’t choose a supervisor without reading their publications.

In research, publishing in peer-reviewed journals is a metric of productivity and success, but it’s also something to consider when seeking a PhD supervisor. If you’re interested in a potential advisor, make it a point to study their CV or publications list (try their institute’s profile, Google Scholar, or lab website). It will give you several pieces of pertinent information:

Interests:

What niche research topics are they interested in? What model organism(s) does the lab use? Do they match your interests? (Pro tip: If you read their papers in chronological order, you can understand how their interests have evolved and where their research is headed.)

Growth and innovation:

It can be frustrating to work with a supervisor who is unwilling to try or test new ideas. Even though scientists are at the frontiers of discovery, it's not uncommon to meet those who conduct the same research again and again. Examine the methodologies in their most recent papers. Do they use the latest techniques, technologies, or ideas? Now actively read the conclusions and discussions. How thought-provoking are their ideas? 

As research becomes increasingly interdisciplinary and collaborative; it’s important to stay up-to-date and be open to new technologies and ways of thinking. A supervisor who is unwilling to do so, out of fear for the new or stubbornness, will only hinder your development.

Is he/she/they actively conducting research?

Look at details such as when they last published, how frequently, and the kind of authorship they held in those publications (first, second, corresponding, etc.). This will tell you if this scientist is actively conducting research and whether they will work alongside you or simply govern from their office.

Don’t choose a supervisor if you’re not excited by their research.

At the end of the day, this is the most important factor. A PhD is physically and mentally draining; if you don’t love what your lab does, it will drag on. Although this seems intuitive, it still warrants mentioning. From conversations with graduate students, it’s obvious that some are drawn to eye-catching or “impactful” research areas.

Even if you want to improve society and change the world, that type of breakthrough does not come easily or quickly. Most groundbreaking discoveries come late in a scientist’s career. Thus, even the mundane, non-glamorous details must interest you. Choose a supervisor whose research excites you. Even when things go horribly wrong or experiments fail, you will have that much more intrinsic motivation to try again, and your supervisor will be there to empathize and support you.

Don’t choose a supervisor without meeting them.

Before committing to a PhD program, be sure to meet your supervisor in person. Everything can look great on paper, but having a conversation (not just an interview) will trigger your gut instincts on whether this is the right fit. Why? Because personal chemistry is important. You’re about to spend a lot of time with this person (four years at the very least); make sure you work and connect well with them. Meeting them can also show how excited, knowledgable, and passionate they are about their own research.

A great way to assess whether you get along with your potential supervisor is just to have a long, open-ended conversation about a tentative research question. Take note of how well they listen and what kind of feedback they provide. Are they open to your ideas or do they simply want you to fulfill their grants? Are they patient or condescending when you don’t understand a concept? Do they push you to think deeper?

An interview or even a video call might not be enough because the formality of those scenarios prevent either party from behaving naturally. If you cannot meet with the supervisor in person, try to follow-up after the interview by asking about their last paper or a potential research question you have. How quickly and fully they respond is a good indicator of what the next 4-7 years will be like. 

Don’t choose a supervisor that might retire before you submit!

This is self-explanatory, but surprisingly common. You can find many cases of PhD students struggling after their supervisors’ retirements. I personally know several graduate students who had to take on new supervisors during the final years of their study.

Getting a new supervisor when you’re almost at the finish line can be devastating. If your advisor retires, your program will assign you to someone with a vaguely similar research area. However, we all know research is specific and niche; a new supervisor will neither understand your work nor put in the effort to do so. Therefore, make sure to find out if your potential supervisor plans to retire in the near future.

Don’t choose a supervisor without talking to their current and previous students.

There is no one better equipped to tell you what a supervisor is like than their current and past students. If possible, actually talk to them in person or over video-call—a simple email inquiry is not enough. Students with a positive experience will happily and eagerly talk about their lab and supervisor. However, no one wants to be a bearer of bad news. Candidates/students who are stressed and unhappy are likely to find fault in themselves rather than their supervisors (or maybe they are uncomfortable with being frank about their experience). It will take a longer conversation and a bit more prodding to read between the lines. Face-to-face un-edited words, tone of voice, and body language can tell you a lot more than an email’s text.

During this conversation make sure to ask about work-life balance. How does his current and recently graduated students feel mentally? Do not fall into a PhD governed by the guilt to work constantly. In the last lab I worked in, the supervisor actually told his students to refrain from romantic relationships because they are a distraction (insane!). A good supervisor should respect personal life and hobbies outside of science. Mental well-being should always be a priority and having a healthy work-life balance during your PhD will better teach you how to manage time in the long run. 

 Don't make the PhD journey any more difficult than it needs to be. You’re about to be a scientist, so do your research! Make sure your supervisor can provide the academic, intellectual, and emotional support that you need. 

Tags: Lab Life, PhD Life

Michele Mei

Michele Mei

Michele has held various research positions, investigating anthropogenic-induced impacts on terrestrial and marine animals. She currently writes for ABclonal Technology, providing insights on the latest research developments as well as snippets into life in science.