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Advice on choosing a supervisor

(21 Posts)
mycatthinksshesatiger Mon 23-Oct-17 20:22:51

I recently started a thread about how important (or not) the University's reputation is when choosing a PhD programme, and received some really helpful answers.

The consensus was that the supervisor matters more than the University itself. So my next question is, what advice can you give for selecting a supervisor?

For my PhD I have been allocated two supervisors. Both work in the broader field I'm researching (for the sake of an analogy, think International relations, specialising in peace treaties, when I'm studying border and customs management between two small African nations....) However neither has any research experience or interests as far as I can see that are even remotely close to what I'll be researching. The only link is the broader faculty umbrella. I'm not questioning their credentials at all; however my question is does it matter that neither knows much at all about my somewhat niche area? and if so, how much difference could this make to a successful outcome (or not)?

Thanks in advance!

HouseholdWords Tue 24-Oct-17 09:10:17

You're working towards becoming the world expert in your niche area. You should outgrow your supervisors' knowledge.

mycatthinksshesatiger Tue 24-Oct-17 09:36:16

Good point household! I hadn’t considered that. Would that mean it doesn’t matter that they have no knowledge of my area?

QueenRefusenik Tue 24-Oct-17 13:14:09

Household is right but in your shoes I would be a bit worried about this. You need some support and guidance in the early days! What is your institution's policy on external supervisors? Is there an obvious candidate your grad school/doctoral training college or whoever could approach?

mycatthinksshesatiger Tue 24-Oct-17 14:05:03

queen I have no idea what their policy is on external supervision as so far I’ve only had email contact with names etc and no written information around fees, contracts etc. The obvious academic to supervise appears to be tied up with other projects but is there as a 3rd supervisor. He has expertise relatively closely linked to my area. What’s the etiquette around this? Would it be rude to enquire about their rationale for choosing this particular supervisor? I have to say yes to the whole project very soon and so far just feel it’s all been about being told what I’m doing, rather than any sort of collaborative process! Thanks both for your answers!

HouseholdWords Tue 24-Oct-17 14:27:15

Discuss it with your allocated supervisors. It's probably fine to go & have a chat with the (busy) expert. And really, don't make too many assumptions about staff expertise: it may be that although some people don't publish or research actively in a field, they have done so in the past, or they have a special interest in it which they maintain. And so on.

But go & see the busy experts after you've done some work with your allocated supervisors in determining your approach & focus. In this initial stage of a PhD it can take anywhere from 3 to 6 months (full-time) to establish your starting set of research questions and your methods and critical/theoretical framework. At this tage, a good conscientious generalist will be fine because it's you doing the reading, the literature survey & so on.

If the 2 specialist experts are very busy, then you may - in the log run - be better off with the less specialist, but available supervisors. Discuss with them the need to speak to a senior researcher working directly in your field. If they're good at their jobs then they'll encourage you to consult widely. But have some specific and drilling-down questions to ask/topics to discuss. Busy people need to be able to get right to the point.

HouseholdWords Tue 24-Oct-17 14:29:34

Also, it may be about staff workloads. You don't get to choose your supervisor, generally.

mycatthinksshesatiger Tue 24-Oct-17 14:48:38

Thanks household that’s so useful! I really don’t know how any of it fits together yet, and you have explained the process in a way that really makes sensesmile

geekaMaxima Tue 24-Oct-17 16:17:12

You don't get to choose your supervisor, generally.

Very field-specific, that. In my area, you most certainly do, and wouldn't even receive a PhD interview without a specific lead supervisor on board who is happy to supervise the PhD. You might have less choice about 2nd supervisors, though - they're often tagged on once the PhD has started.

mycatthinksshesatiger Tue 24-Oct-17 16:32:13

geeka do you mind me asking which area you work in?

geekaMaxima Tue 24-Oct-17 17:00:59

I work in STEM (don't want to be more specific, sorry). The specific supervisor thing is partly to do with specialisations in methodology and partly with enormous literatures that mean it's only manageable to be familiar with a subfield.

geekaMaxima Tue 24-Oct-17 17:02:40

I work in STEM (don't want to be more specific, sorry). The specific supervisor thing is partly to do with specialisations in methodology and partly with enormous literatures that mean it's only manageable to be familiar with a subfield.

geekaMaxima Tue 24-Oct-17 17:03:37

Gaahhh apologies for multi posting. blush Interweb issues.

mycatthinksshesatiger Tue 24-Oct-17 17:07:49

Thanks geeka yes I can see why you would want to be more specific about choosing a supervisor in your field. I have just found a list of supervisors’ main interests for PhD purposes. Neither my 1st or 2nd have any research interests that come anywhere close to my subject. Only the 3rd supervisor (chair) has an interest in my area. I am a bit baffled as to how the decision was made. Though I do get that it might just be about workload issues!

ManInTheMoonMarigold Tue 24-Oct-17 19:15:02

I am a social scientist, and like geekaMaxima we would not consider an application if we had no-one who was a specialist in that area who had agreed to be the main supervisor. We turn down the vast majority of people who approach us for just that reason. I do think it's a bit worrying.

mycatthinksshesatiger Tue 24-Oct-17 19:47:59

Thanks manin got your input - really helpful to know as actually it’s made me realise the recruitment process may be unusual. I submitted a proposal, was interviewed by the head of department, at which point no supervisors had yet been identified. It was only after this that supervisors were allocated. Must admit I have wondered if it’s just a case of getting numbers in through the door rather than taking the students who fit best with existing interests.

cordeliavorkosigan Tue 24-Oct-17 19:53:13

I agree, sounds worrying. You want a lead supervisor who is interested in what you're doing, intellectually very engaged, offering creative ideas and directions, who returns drafts of papers, chapters etc promptly and with good substantive comments. If you are doing something they aren't that interested in, these things may not happen. Equally, supervisor teams can have issues where they all think someone else will take these responsibilities and no one really does, leaving you mostly unsupervised..

cordeliavorkosigan Tue 24-Oct-17 19:54:33

Better to do a topic someone there really cares about than your own topic with poor supervision, unless you are really really skilled and can lead your own PhD.

mycatthinksshesatiger Tue 24-Oct-17 20:04:14

In the past I have done better academically when totally unsupervised (as an undergraduate and Masters student my dissertation supervisors were indisposed and I enjoyed getting on with it on my own). However something tells me that won’t work for a PhD!

bigkidsdidit Tue 24-Oct-17 20:28:24

Is this the place that people were a bit worrried / sneery about you attending? I would be slightly concerned about this. Is it a strong research department in general?

mycatthinksshesatiger Tue 24-Oct-17 20:31:21

Yes it’s the same place. Strong research output and well-regarded department (but not institution overall). I am really getting cold feet! Do some institutions just want the fees, or is there generally a moral responsibility to only take on students they can adequately supervise?

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