Can you choose your PhD supervisor?

Clue: No

I want to supplement some of the advice given to PhD students about their supervision team. There are a lot of guides for PhD students on ‘choosing your supervisor’. Advice falls into the following categories:  topic expertise, position in the field, and personality/working style. Do they know their stuff, do they know the ropes, and can you work productively together. It reflects the different elements of good PhD supervision. The supervisor should open up pathways for you, guide you towards productive modes of work and away from easy mistakes and mentor you in a more holistic sense. It’s a sweet combination. Not everyone is going to cover all of these elements which is why we have two supervisors.

That assumes students are going to be in a position to choose their supervisor. I am here to tell you that choices are limited and mostly students do not go shopping for supervisors in the way suggested. Sometimes  supervisors come tied to a project. Some supervisors only take on specific project types. There is not as much shopping around as implied and maybe there does not need to be.

I ask if you can choose your supervisor because it’s not very likely you will know those elements in advance. You will only know if you can work with them if you have already worked with them. In which case you have still not chosen them, happy happenstance has done the work for you. Paying attention to their position in the field is also self defeating. Someone who is so well known will have many potential PhDs wanting to work with them and might be the one doing the choosing.

When I am arranging supervision the biggest obstacle is that many academics cannot take on more PhDs. I don’t agree with the view that there is a supervisory type. Each relationship is unique and we adopt different roles depending on the needs of the project and the student. What does matter is that you are all able to reflect honestly about working patterns as you go along. Coming to know one’s supervisor is a process of coming to know yourself: their and your inspiration places, blindspots, comfort zones. That is why it is productive to think about what the PhD needs alongside what it is.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.