How to choose your supervisor

It's crucial to find someone you can work with and trust to guide you through your thesis.
Student with supervisor

The supervisory process is a complex pedagogical relationship. The role of your supervisor is to facilitate your academic development and will change over time as you grow in expertise and confidence. Your relationship is more likely to succeed if you are clear about what you expect from your supervisor, so it is important to clarify early in the relationship mutual expectations that are both reasonable and realistic.

Each supervisory relationship involves individual personalities and different contexts. You and your supervisor need to agree on meetings, feedback, research direction and thesis content. Expectations will continue to evolve throughout your studies. The relationship you develop with your supervisor will be unique, so there is no 'right' or 'wrong' supervision experience. They should, however, assist you in crafting your work and help you to plan, providing input and ideas based on their experience.

You are not there to assist a supervisor with their own work: your supervisor is there to guide you in producing your best thesis. You should also ensure that your supervisor does not take over or show little interest in your work. Agreeing aims and schedules at the beginning of the relationship and maintaining regular, well-planned meetings can help avoid these pitfalls.

Finding a suitable supervisor

First you need to locate an institution that you feel best supports your area of research and then find a supervisor in that area. Explore the research activities of potential supervisors, taking time to read their published work to find out if you are comfortable with their methodology. Where possible, meet with potential supervisors to discuss your interests and prepare a list of questions to maximise the effectiveness of any meetings.

How can you ensure you are compatible?

  • Make appointments to meet. Talk to several staff members before making a choice. Ensure that the supervisor's area of expertise can contribute to your project.
  • Make sure that the supervisor is available. Are they accepting new students? Are they able to devote the time required to help you? How many other graduate students have they taken on for the same period? Are they prepared to commit to regularly meeting with you?
  • As far as you can, try to ensure that the supervisor's style, personality and standards are a close fit with, or complementary to, your own. Since research can be solitary you need someone who will stimulate you, who will be interested enough to produce new insights and challenge you to think in a different way. Supplement your own initial impressions with feedback from current students, lecturers etc.
  • Ensure that the supervisor has a proven track record. How many theses have they supervised? Did they complete their studies on time? Were their alumni satisfied with the supervision received? Did the supervisor guide them in a customised way; were they available when needed; were they sufficiently interested in their students' research; were they open, supportive, reliable, trustworthy, clear in the relationships and friendly; were they constructively critical? How many students have graduated recently, and where are they now working?