Some Tips on Choosing a Supervisor

As I’m starting to wrap up my thesis, I’m starting to consider the next steps in my career. I enjoy research so the obvious route is post-doc. It seems to me that’s the best way to pursue those interests but at the same time work with more very talented people. As a post-doc, even though I won’t be a student anymore, I need a supervisor.

So I’ve started looking for post-doc supervisors. I thought it would be beneficial for others to see the steps I have taken in previous degrees and am taking to find a supervisor. But from this stage of the post, when I talk about looking for a supervisor, I don’t just mean post-doc, this advice is for any level of graduate degree you are going to do (although this may seem obvious).

1- Before you even start at thinking of researchers to work with, start by considering your own personal interests (do you prefer working outside in the field or in a lab? Are you driven by a biological question or by an organism? etc). There may be great researchers with awesome records but if the research is not what interests you, you are in for a long and arduous road. And quitting or losing faith in science may a very real possibility. I’m serious, working on what you are passionate is key because if you love what you do, you’ll be awesome at it. Even if there are frustrating moments during your program, which there will be, you can always take a step back. When you ask yourself, why you’re there, the thoughts of passion for your question or organisms will flood back. That’ll help get you through the tough times.

2- Once you’ve got that figured out, start searching for labs that work on or with your interests. Actually a regular google search will be a good start. Other good starting points include talking with friends from classes. They may have talked about a subject in another class and can suggest something. Also ask professors and TAs. Once they know what your interests are, they can help and suggest other researchers to look into. These guys have been around (some more than others), went to conferences, read a lot of papers, made connections, they can definitely help steer you in the right direction (As a side note, if your interests lie with the same subject as one of your profs, talk to them as well; they won’t bite and if they have room in their lab, I’m sure would be happy to help you expand your horizons).

[As a side story, in my third year of undergrad I really wanted to volunteer or work in the Lyman Entomological museum on insect taxonomy. I found the study of systematic fascinating after taking the “Evolution and Systematics” course taught by Dr. Terry Wheeler (I encourage you to check out his blog – But I was/am shy and was afraid of going into the museum because I thought I would be WAY out of my league. One day, I gathered my courage and literally ran down the stairs to the museum. I had a very encouraging and warm reception. It was such a good atmosphere that not only did I do my undergrad research project at the Lyman, I wound up doing my Masters as well.]

3- Once you have a list of a dozen or so supervisor “candidates”, search them out on the web; check out their lab websites, look for their publications and again ask your profs about what they think of your ‘candidate’ supervisors. From their website you get information about what they look for in a student, what their lab’s focus is, who’s in the lab, who was in the lab. Based on the first two; you can start getting a feel about the personality of the supervisor and their interests. From the “who’s in the lab” you can see whether the lab is big or small and get a feel about your potential labmates. If their e-mail addresses are there, contact them, ask them about how the lab is, are there lab meetings, is the supervisor approachable and available and how the university works. If there is a ‘who was in the lab’ section, you can see what the past students are up to. You can check them out as well, do they have jobs you’re interested in? Did they publish as students? And if you can find a way to contact them, that’s even better! Past students have passed the hurdle of their degree and can actually give you feedback on the whole “supervisor” package; from the first day in the lab right through to the thesis submission, defence and publication. Finally, if you approach professors that are around you and ask them about what they think of your potential candidates, they may be able to tell if one of your flagged ‘candidates’ is better to work with.

4-With all this in hand, it’s time to contact your short-list of the supervisors, I would aim from 2-3, unless there is one clear winner. In the initial e-mail, the easiest way to contact them you introduce yourself, talk about your interests and how you’re interested in their lab and how your interests are a good fit with their lab. Make sure that the potential supervisor knows your interests are genuine by relating your interests with his research. If you have some ideas for specific projects include those as well along. Also include a current CV and even your grades.

[Remember the worst thing that can happen is you get an e-mail back saying something along the lines “Thank you but I can’t take you on”. There may be numerous reasons for them, from lack of funding to no space in the lab to changes in their research focus. If the latter happens, they may give suggest names of other potential supervisors.]

5- If the supervisor is interested, there may be many exchanges of e-mails about projects and timelines. They should invite you for a visit to the lab. This is an important part, because there you can actually see what the lab and people are like in 3-D. Spend the time talking to the students, go for a tour of the university, talk to the potential supervisor face to face. Talk about things other than science, out of lab activities, their hobbies… Get to know them as people, because if that’s where you decide to do your degree, you’ll be spending many days and potentially long nights in the lab with them working on experiments or analyses.

Of course, there are also possibilities that you have crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i’ but you find yourself in a less than ideal lab. Don’t worry about it, and think about how you are actually pursuing and researching the best thing ever because you are. Plus there are other labs and people in the department to give you a helping hand. In the end stay positive and if you love what you do, be proud of it and keep on doing it!

So to recap I made a flowchart:



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