Your supervisor will be the single-most important factor for career advancement in and beyond academia. Moreover, it is one of the few factor that you can fully control, both as a PhD student and as a postdoc. Given how consequential the choice of a supervisor is, it is worth to give it some serious consideration. In this week’s Skills Weaving Blog, we will take a closer look at the role of your supervisor, what you can consider when making your choice, and how you can ensure you select a good candidate.
The role of a supervisor
In academia, supervisors can play many roles. At one point or another, they will serve as your boss, teacher, coach, mentor, evaluator, and other roles. The main responsibility of a supervisor is to provide academic guidance, a rather ambiguous concept. In practice, this translates into training of (technical) skills, including experimental, analytical, statistical methodologies. In addition, their suggestions and feedback will be invaluable in developing your communication and presentation skills. A good supervisor will also introduce you to best practices related to project and time management. Other, less tangible, aspects include an introduction to a research culture with it’s (field-specific) paradigms, interactions, networks, personal development opportunities, ethics, and integrity. In the end, a supervisor is responsible for the quality of your work.
A few points to consider when selecting a supervisor
Expertise: The classical criterion for selecting a supervisor is her/his expertise in your field of interest. Identify someone who is working on the topic of your interest. Selecting a research topic is very personal and goes beyond the scope of today’s Blog.
Career stage: The career stage of your supervisor will greatly affect your interactions. Being the first PhD student of a newly established group leader can pose a risk to your career if the supervisor lacks good management skills. However, they usually are more available and more involved in the actual research. On the other hand, an established leader in the field may offer excellent research projects and access to outstanding facilities, but will likely be less available due to other commitments (e.g. congresses, institutional responsibilities, teaching).
Group size: Although the perfect group size depends on many factors, there turns out to be a magical number of around 7 members. This is small enough to really keep track of all group members, while be large enough to offer diverse perspectives. Larger groups can work well, but often require a higher-level organization into subgroups.
Group structure: In line with the above, particularly in larger groups, it is good to get an idea of the group structure. Are there sufficient senior group members to provide support to junior members? Does a group mainly (only) consist of PhD students, or is there technical and supportive staff available?
Track-record: Regarding research output, you can check the consistency and quality of research papers. Is your potential supervisor only publishing in selected (high-impact) journals once a couple of years, or is there consistent good-quality output from the whole team? Depending on your research field, you can consider authorship contributions (i.e. are senior group members listed as corresponding authors or not), and the diversity of the publication portfolio.
Extra-curricular activities: What additional activities does your intended supervisor engage in? Is he/she active in editorial boards, organizing committees of conferences, summer schools, trainings, spin-off companies, public outreach activities, science advocacy, etc. All these activities will give you a good impression of both priorities and availability.
How to select a good supervisor
Background research: You can get a good impression of many of the topics above through a proper (online) search. Check out the website of the group and institution, publication databases, online video presentations, social media posts, presentation titles on conferences, newspaper articles etc.
Personal meeting/interview: Upon completing your initial background research, you will be well-prepared for a personal interview or meeting. This interview is where you can really get to know each other and see if your personalities match. Do not hesitate to raise topics and concerns that resulted from your background research.
Discuss with other group members: Always try to meet with some other team members, preferably with different roles (PhD students, postdocs, technical staff). An (in)formal meeting with the team may provide excellent insights in group dynamics and leadership styles. Be aware that the outcome of such meetings can be situational and does not have to be representative. Moreover, keep an eye for changes in group dynamics in the presence or absence of the intended supervisor.
As a PhD student, you usually have more freedom to select a research topic, while postdocs mostly seek specific knowledge or expertise in a supervisor. In the end, it is important that you are in charge of making the decision.