In many institutions, once you accepted into a PhD programme you are then assigned a supervisor. This is usually made on the basis of supervisor’s expertise concerning your proposed topic. Often decisions are also made on the basis of the supervisor’s workload. In the US, students have greater access to a committee for advice, whereas outside the US supervision is left more to an individual academic.
Although the department should check the supervisor’s workload, you may also want to ask some further questions. There is no point having the best researcher in the field as your supervisor, if they have no time to talk to you or read your work. You may want to ask:
- How many other PhD students has the supervisor previously? How many have completed in time? Where are they now?
- How often will you meet?
- Are they going to be available over the entire period of your candidateship (eg do they plan to go on sabbatical)
- If they are going to be away for a period of time, what arrangements for supervision will be made.
Many institutions have two supervisors as the norm, and this system is also useful if one supervisor is away for any period of time. If your preferred supervisor lacks experience, you may want to have two supervisors.
You may also want to consider:
- How enthusiastic is this person about your research?
- Is the approach taken by a potential supervisor compatible with your approach (ie do they understand your theoretical framework and methods)?
- Will your supervisor expect your research to match their own work, or will you have scope to develop your own ideas?
- Are you comfortable with this person?
Should you approach a potential supervisor?
It depends. If you have already studied in the same department or you have previously met the potential supervisor, then it may be appropriate to discuss your research ideas. Many departments actively encourage their best students to consider continuing to postgraduate studies, and academics are often flattered to think that their work may have encouraged you to study further. You may also want to visit the department and see what facilities are offered to PhD students.
Cold-calling, however, is more difficult. Some departments have policies that restrict potential PhD students from contacting potential supervisors, although there is usually an administrator who can provide advice. Many academics, however, are only too pleased to hear from someone who is interested in their research. If you intend to make personal contact you should:
- Contact an individual academic rather than send the same email to a long list of people.
- Show that you know someone about their research. For instance say that you are making contact after reading a particular paper.
- Gives a brief summary of what you would be interested in researching, but make sure your message is concise. Avoid very long blocks of text which are difficult to read from the screen.
- Use an appropriate tone and form of address (eg do not start with “Hi Angela!”).
- Wait at least a week before sending a polite reminder. Sometimes emails get overlooked and so it is OK to send a reminder, but don’t pester.