How to get a rock star supervisor

How do you choose the right supervisor? How do you know if it might be time for a change?

In this post Associate Professor Evonne Miller offers a check list of qualities of an awesome supervisor. I now blog with Evonne over at The Supervision Whisperers where the tagline is “Just like the Thesis Whisperer, but with more paperwork”.

Evonne is the Director of Research Training for the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. She detests meetings and leans towards the hands-off supervision style, but her students will attest that she is passionate about their research and does yell at them (kindly) when needed.

screen-shot-2017-02-05-at-9-47-09-amWhether it is art, science or a little bit of magic, choosing the ‘right’ phd supervisor is one of the most important decisions you will make. There is no doubt that a little bit of luck (or magic) is involved, and both students and supervisors sometimes wish they had a crystal ball that would enable them to see into the future. In the absence of that, however, below I suggest four practical questions/considerations that might help you when selecting your PhD supervisor. This decision will have a significant impact on your PhD experience, so implore you to think carefully and make a considered decision.

 Are they an active, engaged and respected researcher?

Of course, they need to be an expert in this field of research. The best place to start is by reading your potential supervisors biography, publications and recent competitive grants. Have they held important leadership roles (e.g., conference, professional associations, journal editor etc), do they have a history of successful, timely completions and where do their students now work? Most of this information should be very easily accessible online, and if it is not, I would argue this is a warning flag.

What is their personality and “supervision style”?

Unfortunately, the first step only tells you whether they are good researchers; you also need to know how they supervise and if their approach is aligned to your personality, learning style and expectations. You need to meet face to face, or via skype, to have a conversation about whether they like to meet fortnightly, monthly or not at all, and if that meshes with your expectations. Some supervisors are micro-managers with Gantt charts, strict meeting and activity deadlines, whereas others are more relaxed and laidback – the best supervisors mix both these styles depending on the student and their time in the thesis journey. Being a good supervisor is very different from being a good researcher; it involves developing positive working relationships that foster motivation, honest communication and celebrate successes.

At this first meeting, you will get a sense of their personality and approach to supervision – and if they don’t tell you their expectations, ask. Trust your instincts: if you don’t get on with your supervisor, you’re going to have a very, very tough time.

 Research their “Character”. All academics are smart – find the kind academics to be your supervisor.

Ideally, you will be able to talk to their former students about their experiences (keeping in mind that people have different personalities and different thesis journeys). But if you cannot talk to past students directly, you can get a sense of how satisfied they were with their supervision experience by reading the acknowledgement section of their thesis. Below are excerpts from five PhD theses; while people differ in their writing styles and use of emotion, reading between the lines gives you a sense of how engaged each supervisor was in their thesis journey.

“For guidance, assistance and support in the research and writing of this thesis, thanks are due to my supervisors”.

“I would like to thank my supervisors for providing constructive feedback at critical points of the research development”

“You are a rock star supervisor, and I would not have survived this journey without you. You have been incredible, and I am so truly grateful to have had you by my side for the wild ride that has been my PhD journey. The clarity and knowledge you have imparted has been invaluable”

“This dissertation would not have been possible without her support, guidance and encouragement, providing me a shoulder to cry on when all seemed hopeless, instilling me with confidence when I questioned my ability, and for the early morning and late evening texts, emails and messages that seemed to shine a ray of hope on what appeared to be an overwhelming amount of information”.

“The person most directly responsible for my development as an academic is NAME. Knowing what I do now, if I could go back in time and hand pick any supervisor in the world it would be NAME. Work wise, the only thing that seemed more important to him than his passion for his research was the wellbeing of his doctoral student”

I would argue that, if at all possible, you want to work with “the rock star” supervisor; not someone who was helpful in providing “constructive feedback” at times.

 How can they help you? Be strategic.

Take some time to reflect on what you most what to get out of your phd – and make sure that the supervisor you select is in a position to support your endeavors. Do they have a scholarship on offer, part time teaching or research assistant work? Are they connected with industry or the communities you need to access. For example, if you want to conduct ethnographic fieldwork overseas or with in a large company, look for supervisors who already have these connections.

Develop an external support network 

Finally, you will be working with your supervisor for a minimum 3-4 years. Even in the best relationship, there will be disagreements and drama, criticism and crying – ideally in private, but a good friend of mine recently burst into tears at the start of her final seminar (the combination of 5 years part time thesis enrolment, while working full time with two young children).  We all understood: doing and completing a PhD is an emotional journey. Completing it requires a good external support network, so make fostering friendship with your fellow phd students a priority – unlike your family and non-academic newtork, they will “get it” when you are frustrated with data, tangling with theoretical concepts or are elated because you got an article published.

Finally, like many great ideas, this post was triggered by a conversation over dinner with friends who were doing their PhDs and lamenting their choice of supervisor. So, if you are reading this and thinking: I am or have completed my PhD IN SPITE of my supervisor – you are in good company. The reality is that many of us have less than positive memories and tales of supervisory conflict, woe and drama. And I know that some students do not have the luxury of picking their supervisors, or the relationship may have broken down. In these situations, how you manage the situation and your interactions is critical and I recommend (1) contacting the higher degree research support team at your university for advice (there are lots of processes, policies and practical tips to assist) and (2) reading some books on interpersonal communication and strategies.

If, like me, you completed a thesis with limited help, I have two messages for you – first, well done! You know that this PhD was hard earned and you did it.

Second, looking back, was there any early warning signs you could share to help others and any specific steps you could have tried / put in place that might have helped?

Related posts

Visit the Supervision Whisperers – a space for supervisors to talk about supervision

The tyranny of the awesome supervisor


18 thoughts on “How to get a rock star supervisor

  1. Kathleen A. Moore (@kathleenmoore_) says:

    Thank you for writing this post Dr. Miller. I agree that getting the ‘right’ supervisor is critical and I was smiling and nodding as I read. I was particularly drawn, though, to this statement: “And I know that some students do not have the luxury of picking their supervisors, or the relationship may have broken down.” I think this happens more often than people would like to admit. I’m sure folks have many stories about PhD students they know who are simply looking for anyone… not necessarily an active, engaged researcher, with a suitable personality, but rather, anyone at all who is alive and willing to sign a form for you. As someone who was post-comprehensive exams with no supervisor and no prospects, this is a particularly vulnerable situation to be in…I was desperate for anyone. I joked with my peers that I should post “Wanted: Supervisor” posters around the department, with the sole qualification: “must be a faculty member.” Though everything has since worked out for me, I’d love to hear some more discussion about students who are struggling to find a supervisor or who may be considered doctoral orphans.

  2. Pelj says:

    When I got to the part about your preference for the rock star supervisor I went directly to my own acknowledgements page to see what I had written. I didn’t want a rock star but I did want and got supervisors who knew their stuff, were clear-sighted and who were convinced of my capabilities. My main supervisor worked with me across continents (Europe/Africa) and took over the lead role when the previous supervisor was so fully laden with research scholarship and leadership entailing much international travel that it just wasn’t going to work. I was fortunate in securing as my second supervisor a young academic who was very keen and had a different handle on the work. The combination of the two intellects was very good for me. The two things that I kept on mind were that it was my research so supervision was a dialogue not a directive experience. The second point was that I had to make compelling, justified and supported arguments. With these two points was the late realisation the the research process (at this level) is not really linear and incremental. Also that the thesis is the examination piece not the research per section (and thus is within a system where a viva is part of the process).

    In the end, I got supervision which was enhanced through the joint working of my supervisors especially the qualities of experienced supervision and early career supervision.

  3. Helen Marshall says:

    As an ex supervisor (now retired) and as a student who had fabulous supervisors, I endorse the notion that if you can possibly swing it, joint supervision is a good idea. As long as you can work out logistics (joint meetings or separate? Division of labour or both supervisors reading everything? What happens if the supervisors differ wildly on something?) you can benefit enormously. And as a supervisor, I found a colleague who could reinforce or challenge my perceptions and (just once or twice) be a sympathetic ear while I vented in private about a student helped me do a better job.

  4. Alice P. says:

    Here are another two things to consider when choosing a supervisor:
    1. Does the potential supervisor share the same values as you? For example, if you strongly value giving back to the university community, having a supervisor with an “extracurriculars are a waste of time” attitude will make you miserable.
    2. What are your expectations for hierarchy in a supervisor/protégé relationship? Some cultures are more egalitarian than others. If you are returning to school in mid-career, having a supervisor who treats all students as juniors will be a recipe for conflict.

  5. Where's the bar and cafe says:

    Hi Thesis Whisperer
    I went through the process of changing supervisors at the beginning of this year. I thought long and hard about this before changing – after all it is a major upheaval in your life.
    The decision to change came about when (a) I realised that I wanted to change the focus of my thesis – something I’m sure others are familiar with – and (b) I started to question my supervisor’s interest in my project.
    I took 6 months intermission to make sure I really did want to change focus (I continued to read and work during this time). But also because I felt I needed time apart from my supervisor, and perhaps this would help get things back on track between us.
    Warning bells had started to ring before I took intermission when I concluded that my supervisor: had no idea of which conferences may be suitable for me given my interests; had never heard of a major overseas conference in my field; tried to dissuade me from talking to other academics (or claimed if I did I would only become confused); and started to demand I only rely on him for advice. This continued after I returned from intermission.
    So I took courage by the hand and contacted other academics including the HDR convenor. I was surprised how genuinely caring and concerned others were about my welfare and for ensuring I continue with my studies. I now have a new panel – and so far things have been progressing well. My new primary supervisor is a no-nonsense fellow and pushes me when needed (but always with a smile!). My advice to others is if you don’t feel you’re getting the supervisory support you need, or your supervisor turns out to be less knowledgeable or open to new ideas than you expected – change. Doing a PhD is a big journey, and one for which you need all the support and strength you can get to succeed and to fulfil/surpass the standards you want to achieve.

    • Frankie says:

      Thank you for writing this post, I’m going through a similar situation right now and in the midst of changing supervisors… it’s good to know that I’m not alone. Even though it is a huge decision to make it’s relief to know that it is an option is available and as students we are very well supported.

      • Where's the bar and cafe says:

        Hi Frankie – glad to know my post has been of help, Best wishes Where’s the bar and cafe

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  7. anthropologydigital says:

    I knew I wanted to switch one of my supervisors 8 months in….it was just working styles, they were more of an artist and I an engineer….but was convinced to wait another 4 months. At my annual review, I did switch. Shouldn’t have waited. Things are working well now.

  8. rubicon says:

    Agree with this article. But I guess there are certain circumstances that you cannot control even though you already have a good supervisor, e.g. the supervisor moves abroad or to other university. This is very frustrating especially when you cannot find anyone else with the same quality/relationship you have built with your former supervisor.

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